Sunday, April 17, 2016

Thessalonica: Turning the World Upside-Down: Sermon on Acts 17:1-9

Good morning, brothers and sisters! And what a beautiful morning it is to worship God and celebrate what we've seen him do already today. Believers have been persuaded of the gospel and getting baptized for thousands of years now – generation after generation being washed clean by the invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one name, one authority, one God. 

But we know that before anyone can be baptized, they have to hear the good news – they have to hear that Jesus died to cancel our sin, that he was buried in the tomb as we're buried in the water, that he rose again to free us from death's power, and that he lives today and is coming again to be with us.

Have you ever wondered when your first ancestor heard the gospel for the first time? Who was the first Christian in your family tree? I've wondered that a lot. For myself, I'd have to imagine it was some Germanic tribesman in the centuries after Rome's fall. Did he hear it from St. Boniface himself, the great “Apostle to the Germans”? Or did it get passed on from tribe to tribe 'til it reached him? 

But where did St. Boniface get it? He was an Anglo-Saxon – he heard the gospel from his parents, and they from their parents and their priests, back to St. Augustine of Canterbury, whom Pope Gregory the Great sent from Rome to preach the gospel at the close of the sixth century. 

But where did Gregory hear the gospel? He heard it from his Roman parents and priests, and they heard it from those who came before them, and so on for hundreds of years. And where did they first hear the gospel? From the earliest believers in Europe – many of whom heard it when a band of intrepid missionaries answered the Macedonian call. 

That's the story we've begun exploring for the past few weeks – the Book of Acts that tells us how the gospel made it from Jerusalem to Rome, from Asia to Europe, from the old centers of God's work out to the fringes. The legacy of the mission.

Last week, following Paul and his team around Philippi, remember, we saw him cast a python-spirit out of a slave-girl because it tried to water down the gospel he preached. It tried to get everyone to hear Paul's message as compatible with the way their religious world always worked – just one more optional path to health and wealth, through one more generic god. And we saw Paul overturn that bland, sappy, very unchristian muddle with the crisp, clear name of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul and Silas were put in prison, they sang their faith and showed the beauty of Jesus to the other prisoners. Their public worship entranced their newest neighbors – now that's evangelism.

This morning, as we pick up the story, Paul and Silas and Timothy have left Luke behind in Philippi to continue teaching the new believers there. And so they follow the Via Egnatia, a major Roman road, to the next logical spot: Thessalonica. Now, Thessalonica is a big city! Has anywhere from two to ten times as many people as most. Even today, it's the second-largest city in Greece. It's no Roman colony but is a free city, with decisions made by the whole citizen-assembly and staffed by politarchs. 

It no doubt took a while for our missionaries to even get their bearings in the city! Paul sets up shop in his trade – he works with leather, makes tents – and employs his favorite ministry practice. For the next three weeks, he works and evangelizes other craftsmen in the marketplace (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:19); and when the Sabbath rolls around, he heads for the synagogue and tries to persuade the Jews there to believe that Jesus really is the Messiah (Acts 17:2-3).

Paul's evangelism strategy doesn't boil down to, “Believe this because I told you.” It's not, “Believe this or else.” It's not, “Believe this because it'll make you feel better, or make your life good.” Paul says, “Believe this, because it's true and here are the reasons – I'll show you from the same books you trust.” 

That's a good lesson for us today – we can bear our personal testimonies, and we certainly should. We can live out the gospel as a winsome example, and we certainly should. Any new Christian can do that – and that's good, because we've all got a role to play in God's mission. But as we grow in the faith, as we learn our culture and learn the Scriptures and get trained in how to witness effectively, we're supposed to be able to make the case for Christ. 

That's what Paul does here – and Luke even says it's something he does as a custom! Paul learned it from the example of Jesus' synagogue preaching, and so should we (cf. Luke 4:16). As fond of we are of saying you can't argue somebody into the kingdom – well, you can't evangelize or testify or hug or love anybody into it, either. It's all on God's initiative, in God's power – but he'll use your evangelism and your testimony and your love and your explanation of the reasons to believe. And as we see here, it worked! Not everyone believed, but some sure did – Jews, God-fearing Greeks, and elite women (Acts 17:4).

After three weeks, Paul and Silas get asked – okay, maybe less 'asked' and more 'threatened' – not to show their faces at the synagogue again. And they don't. For weeks or maybe months, they focus on strengthening and teaching this new church, and continuing evangelism out in the streets, in the shops, wherever hasn't been closed off to them. And maybe the new Jewish believers keep sharing the good news with their friends, their parents and brothers and cousins. 

So the synagogue leaders get angry – they get “envious” of the gospel's success (Acts 17:5). They can't find Paul and Silas – maybe they're champs at hide-and-seek, maybe they're busy doing evangelism somewhere else in town – so the mob whipped up by the synagogue leaders goes after the next-best target: Jason, the convert who played host to the missionaries and probably to the new house-church. And so they haul Jason and other believers into the forum and lodge a formal accusation in front of the politarchs and the citizen-assembly. During the week I spent in Thessaloniki a couple months ago, I walked past the old forum plenty; I can picture the scene.

With Paul and Silas on trial in absentia, with Jason and friends in the hot seat, the mob accuses the missionaries of preaching a gospel that “turns the world upside down” – a message that Jesus is “another king” besides Caesar (Acts 17:6-7). In Philippi, Paul was accused of being unpatriotic and going against Roman custom. Here, he's accused of outright treason. Because there really was a decree from Emperors Augustus and Tiberius that predicting future kings was considered treasonous against the state. And this scene in Thessalonica is happening shortly after the new emperor, Claudius, kicked all Jews out of Rome because the message about Jesus had caused such a stir among them.

The irony is that, in the literal sense, this mob is lying. Paul and Silas aren't inciting a riot. The leaders of the synagogue are the ones causing a riot! They're the ones gathering lowlifes from the marketplace – unemployed layabouts eager for something to do, no matter what – and disturbing the city's peace. And they know full well that Paul and Silas aren't preaching Jesus as an earthly king, a contender for the Roman throne who threatens Claudius' reign. Paul and Silas are clear: his kingdom isn't of this world (cf. John 18:36).

At the same time, in a deeper sense, isn't this just the truth? Jesus is another king! The gospel does turn the world upside-down! And hallelujah – because the world's been the wrong-way-up ever since our backs faced Eden with the desert before us, and it could use a flip! The world around us is full of sin – that's the wrong way up! It's tainted by death – that just ain't right! The world around us is broken and hurting and rebellious and grieving and enraged and nodding off to sleep – and it needs to be knocked end over end, spun around, turned upside-down. Jesus was enthroned on the cross, Jesus conquered death and the grave, Jesus marched royally to resurrection victory, all so the world could be overthrown and restamped with a better way.

Friends, following Jesus is not life as usual. Jesus does not do things Caesar's way, or Mammon's way, or the American way. Jesus does things heaven's way. Where Caesar doesn't like it, tough for Caesar! Caesar can just learn his place – he can rule Rome, but there's another king in town whose kingship goes higher and wider and deeper. And I'd rather displease Caesar, rather lose out on Mammon, rather walk out of step with the American way, than displease King Jesus, the Anointed Son of God. Jesus is not Caesar's rival, nor Caesar's peer. Whether Caesar wants to admit it or not, Jesus is Caesar's Judge – and ours. Jesus also wants to be Caesar's Savior (and ours) – if Caesar (and we) will believe and follow him.

Jesus is another king – he's another kind of king – he is the King, the King of Kings. When we join his topsy-turvy world through faith and baptism, we aren't just asking him to step in and rescue us from sin – though there is that. Jesus is Savior, Redeemer. We aren't just devoting our inner lives to him – though there is that. Jesus is Shepherd, Soul Friend. We aren't just handing over the box in our souls and the days on our calendar marked 'religion' – though Jesus is God.

But Jesus isn't content with just that. When we join his topsy-turvy world, we're saying that we bow to King Jesus; that we serve him now, above all other kings and kingdoms. Like Abraham Kuyper said over a century ago, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human life of which Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not cry: 'Mine!' His kingdom is the important one. We cross over through the water, an act of immigration. On the other side, he gives us a new kingdom identity. He makes us swear a pledge of allegiance to him that trumps all others. He enlists us.

And make no mistake: following this King will turn your world upside-down, and it will turn the world upside-down. He'll flip your world over. All of our lives have broken places – spots tender to the touch. All of our lives have dysfunction – ways we just don't work right. 

Maybe you live with trauma of some kind – maybe there's a thousand-yard stare in your eyes from the horrors you've seen and lived, maybe you've been to addiction and back, maybe your soul aches from having a loved one torn away, maybe you cry out against constant pain, maybe you're sobered by brush-ups with your vulnerability or mortality. 

Maybe you struggle with anger, or wrestle with despair, or tangle with lust or greed. Maybe you've settled into a routine that chains you to mud when you were made to soar. Maybe you've settled for a life all your own when you were made to have a higher life lived in you. Maybe you measure yourself by all the wrong yardsticks. Or maybe you just look into your heart and see its deceit and darkness – or worse, your spiritual eyesight is so out-of-focus and occluded that your dark, deceitful heart looks fine and fair and true.

Following this King will turn your world upside-down. He wants to reach into those places and flip them over. He wants to flip your anger into peace, your despair into joy, your greed into generosity, your lust into love, your earthiness into heavenly freedom, your hurt into healing. He wants to take your heart of stone and flip it into flesh. He wants to flip your smallness into his bigness, your darkness into his light, your deadness into his potent life. 

Following this King will give you new allegiances. This King will give you a new family. He'll be your example. He'll be your leader. He'll teach you how to live, how to navigate a world you see as upside-down – a world where the way to be greatest is to serve the most, where the way to gain is to give, where life is on death's backside, where glory is found on the cross. 

From the heart out to our personal lives, our social lives, our legal, political, economic lives, this King will leave no stone in your world unturned – no attitude, no behavior, no dynamic, no custom, no tradition unexamined – nothing exempt from his kingly wisdom or his royal Spirit. That can be a scary thing. That can be a discomfiting thing.

This King is not the King of comfort; he's the King whose banner is his cross. This King doesn't drive people apart; he knits together his citizen assembly, the local church. He adopts us all into the royal family, appoints every citizen an ambassador of his kingdom to this wrong-way-up world. And so we regularly gather in these kingdom outposts, and we render patriotic service to the kingdom by celebrating the King, and we eat at the King's table, and we listen to the King's decrees explained and applied, and then we go out to live as good citizens and good ambassadors. 

We're offering the only passport, only visa, only green card there is that can let our neighbors in this world immigrate to the new creation. And bit by bit, with faith and hope and love, with the way of the cross and the light of the resurrection, we're turning this world over. That's a thing to celebrate! Because it's just what the world, just what our worlds, needs. Let's invite and serve the kingdom that turns the world upside-down, while we wait for the Return of the King.

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