Sunday, May 22, 2016

Ephesus: "The Word of the Lord Prevailed": Sermon on Acts 19

Good morning, brothers and sisters! Sure has been a wet week out there at times – and still is! But through all the weather, we've come to the first Sunday after Pentecost. And if we remember last week, we met someone new in the story, a man named Apollos, who was incredibly gifted in mind and, most importantly, in the Spirit. 

Paul had stopped in Ephesus briefly before Apollos arrived, and when Paul did, the folks at this synagogue actually wanted Paul to stick around with them (Acts 18:19-20). He told them he'd come back “if God wills,” and God did will (Acts 18:21)! In the meantime, Apollos came to probably this very synagogue, speaking boldly and teaching about Jesus, so far as what he knew (Acts 18:25-26).

In Thessalonica, Paul got to dialogue at the synagogue for three whole weeks (Acts 17:2). In Berea, he would've gotten a lot longer, but his Thessalonian opponents chased him away (Acts 17:13-14). We don't hear how long he did this in Athens (Acts 17:17) or in Corinth (Acts 18:4), but his synagogue ministry in Corinth gets cut short by dirty, slanderous opposition that drives him to mainly focus on the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). 

And now in Ephesus, where Priscilla and Aquila and Apollos have been serving the gospel, this friendly synagogue gives Paul three whole months to teach there, “reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Seems too good to be true, and when it all comes down, the opposition is just attributed to 'some' – as in, not everybody wants Paul gone, because a sizeable number are convinced or still open!

So when the synagogue as a whole has become a hostile environment, Paul leaves and takes a big band of new believers with him. And where does he go? To “the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9), and there he stays for two years, holding daily discussions there, so that both Jews and Greeks throughout the whole province hear about the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). We often miss what an amazing thing is going on here. Paul hasn't stopped being a tent-maker or leather-worker, but he's found a new job on the side. Paul has become an official, approved professor of philosophy for the city of Ephesus. That's pretty amazing! What he dabbled with in Athens, he's matured to full measure here.

Probably he does his craftsmanship in the marketplace from sunrise until late morning, and then goes to the hall – used as a local school as well as for other advanced lectures – to teach for five hours – first the general crowds who wander in, then more dedicated students including the new believers. He has to rent the building, but once his popularity picks up, he gets financial sponsorship from local benefactors who've served in government – the Asiarchs (Acts 19:31). 

So there's Paul, teaching the Bible in a school, holding lectures in off-hours. Students wanting to hear different styles would go around listening to any lectures or discussions available, and the whole city was on siesta and might go looking for some entertainment, so plenty of both wandered in – especially because there weren't enough teachers to go around.

To me, this is absolutely amazing. I never really thought about this before, but Paul's new position is a major launching platform for his ministry. He's in the schools, he's teaching college, he's making friends and influencing people, and he's doing this for two years! And even though he faces some persecution during this time, he's still enjoying the privileges of official teaching. It's possible to have both: you can be a believer, you can follow the Way, you can minister the gospel, both while enjoying status and while being opposed and oppressed – and sometimes both at once! And this is what he's trained for. When the Spirit led Paul on a route of ministry he didn't expect, it was to make sure he was ready for this.

Paul didn't know what God had in store! If you'd asked Paul in Acts 14 if he thought he'd ever be a philosophy teacher in Ephesus, and that it'd be the most successful gospel ministry of his life up to then, I mean, is that what Paul's written down as his career goal? No! No, this is a move of God. Paul didn't plan it; God did. And all the uncomfortable situations, all the fish-out-of-water experiences in Athens, everything else – now Paul can look back on it and see what God was doing. 

But Paul couldn't have done that if he'd disobeyed Jesus last chapter to “speak and not be silent” (Acts 18:9). Without faithfulness, we won't find out what God is training us to do and be. But rest assured: God has a plan for your life. It may involve suffering – too often we gloss over that. It may involve discomfort, and awkwardness, and hardship, and deprivation, and a lot of seemingly wrong turns. But God is the Grand Weaver. He's taking those threads and making a tapestry. He's writing your story, and that confusing path you're on may prove to be just the plot that makes the most exciting chapter possible. Just trust God, and keep on trucking.

As for Paul, that's what he did. And so for two years, his ministry prospered and reached all of Asia and beyond – he trained mission teams and sent them out, and even word of mouth reached other towns about this popular new philosopher in Ephesus with an original message they ought to hear. In fact, it's during this time that all Seven Churches of Revelation get founded. The word of the Lord reaches not just a city, but the whole province – amazing! 

But Paul's ministry isn't just in teaching. God is doing miracles. He lays hands on people, they get healed (Acts 19:11). And soon, that's not enough. Jesus laid hands on people, and then suddenly a woman was healed by touching the fringes on his clothes (Luke 8:44). Peter laid hands on people, and then suddenly they got better when his shadow crossed their path (Acts 5:15). And now the same happens with Paul – the Spirit won't stay limited to touch.

What's happening here is that, as Paul's fame as a miracle man grows, people are sneaking into his workshop and taking things – his grimy aprons... the rags he uses to wipe sweat from his face when he gets overheated – and miracles follow them (Acts 19:12). It's not Paul's idea, just like Jesus didn't suggest touching his garment and Peter didn't ask people to gather in his shadow. But if last chapter we heard about Apollos “boiling in the Spirit” (Acts 18:25), now we have Paul sweating out Holy Spirit! 

And I can't help but think, “Isn't that what we need today? We need the church to be so saturated in the Spirit that God makes himself undeniably known here!” Too often, we try to make it through on our own power. But we are not made to be self-sufficient. We aren't! When Paul writes in his letters about 'the natural man,' he's literally talking about a soul-driven person – somebody whose own soul, whose own self, is the practical source of their actions. And most of the time, that's where we live. Think back over the last week. How much of what you did, how much of what you tried to do, how much of what you thought about, came mostly from inside yourself, within your soul?

But Paul tells us about another possibility. When he talks about somebody being 'spiritual,' he's not talking about somebody thinking about God a lot. (By the way, when somebody tells you that they're “spiritual but not religious,” it probably means they're neither.) Because when Paul talks about being 'spiritual,' he's talking about a Spirit-driven person – somebody whose attitudes and actions aren't led or decided or fueled by their own soul, their own self, but by the Spirit of God living within you. And when we become totally surrendered to the Spirit, to whatever fruit and gifts he wants to grow and give, to wherever he wants to lead us and whatever he wants to do with us – well, as we mature, who's to say whether we won't sweat out the Spirit's power too?

But back to Paul. Luke wants to make sure we don't get the wrong idea, because this whole healing-cloth thing sounds a bit like magic. And magic was a big deal in Ephesus. In fact, around the whole Roman world, if you had an amulet with some occult symbol etched on it, you might call it “Ephesian writing.” What Athens was to philosophers, Ephesus was to magicians. And it's no surprise that the next two stories make obvious the difference between magic and the gospel. 

A band of Jewish magicians, children or disciples of a renegade Jewish priest with the Latin name Scaeva, swing through town, trying to do magical exorcisms (Acts 19:13-14). In those days, there were two ways you might try to give a demon the boot – you could learn its name and subdue it, or you could manipulate a tougher spirit to do your dirty work for you. And that's what these magicians try – only the one they want to invoke is Jesus. 

Oh, the demon knows who Jesus is, and he's heard who Paul is. But these men have no connection to either. They aren't students of Paul, and they aren't followers of Jesus. They aren't trusting in Jesus; they're trying to use him, just one name among many. And as a result, they don't exorcise the demon; the demon asks their name and exorcises them (Acts 19:15-16)! Hilarious!

It's easy to laugh at the sons of Scaeva. But the truth is, we might be more like them than we think. Because we follow in their footsteps sometimes. They were trying to domesticate Jesus to their own agenda, rather than joining his. And there are days we do the same thing. We have goals, we have ideas, and implicitly we see Jesus as a tool to achieve them. We want to invoke Jesus, to pressure him to our will, to have him cast out our problems so that we can get back to 'life as usual.' That's exactly what the sons of Scaeva tried. And it didn't work. It doesn't work. Jesus is not here to be our butler, or our nanny, or our concierge, or our errand-boy. He isn't here to endorse our partisan politics, or take our side in our petty personal squabbles, or bail us out in times of trouble and then kindly go away. He is Lord always and Savior always.

Remember the scene in the Book of Joshua: as the Israelites were preparing for battle against Jericho, Joshua looked up, and there was a man with a sword in his hand. A threat! Or a helper? So Joshua asks, “Excuse me, sir, but whose side are you on? Is it our side, or Jericho's side? Are you for us or against us?” And the answer isn't, “Your side, of course, Joshua.” Nor is the answer, “Their side.” The answer is just, “No.” “Are you for us or against us?” “No... but I am the commander of the LORD's army” (Joshua 5:13-14). And so Joshua gives worship. 

If you ask Jesus, “Hey, are you on my side or theirs?”, that's the answer you'll get: “No.” What matters isn't getting Jesus on your side; what matters is joining his team. And that happens through faith. That's what the sons of Scaeva don't get. They think they can manipulate Jesus to take their side against the demon, and then discard Jesus until he proves useful again. 

Often, we do the same thing: we reach out when there's a problem in our path, and then we want to go back to 'life as usual.' We can enlist Jesus, we think, and then muster him out when the battle's done. But Jesus didn't come to be a soldier fighting the battles of Jonathan, or Joe, or Cindy, or Wilmer. Jesus came to enlist us. And since the sons of Scaeva aren't in the fight, the demon doesn't know them, and their magic is pointless and vain – and so is every goal we try to reach by using Jesus instead of trusting him as Lord of our lives.

When news gets out in Ephesus, it catches attention. You mean these magicians aren't worth diddly-squat? That Jesus is greater than angels and demons and our little gods and spells? And everyone begins celebrating, magnifying, exalting the name of Jesus – that's what we want to see (Acts 19:17)! Because the name of Jesus isn't a tool to be wielded, or an incantation to be pronounced. He doesn't make himself available to magic; he asks us to approach with just faith. No fancy spells, no secret tricks that'll blow your mind... just trust in him, to work for his kingdom, and to accept the answers he gives. 

And now the believers come, and they have an admission to make. They'd been trying to follow Jesus in a lot of things... but they wanted to hold on to magic too, as a back-up plan, or a side business, or a hobby. They figured that Jesus is plenty of heavenly good, and maybe Jesus rules the future... but this is the real world, this is earth, this is here and now, and we need practical magic to get by! Only, we don't. And now they realize that. Jesus isn't content to let this corner of their lives stay pagan. Jesus won't settle for 95% of a person. Jesus wants the entire Ephesian – and the entire you, and the entire me. No areas held back. Nothing left pagan, nothing running according to the old rules of the world.

And that's a challenge for us, because there are so many areas where, pressed with the clear commands of the gospel, we object, “Well, yeah, sure, in theory, but let's be practical here, that just won't work!” Maybe it's the gospel discouraging us from living by the sword. Maybe it's the repeated command to not fear, not worry, just trust in the Lord. Maybe it's the gospel's call to show hospitality 'til it hurts, or to bless those who curse us. Maybe it's the gospel's high standard for living out the gospel in our careers, or in our marriages, or with our wallets – and we want to say, “Slow down, let's be practical here!” 

We assume we can fairly hold that back, because Jesus has no business with it, Jesus can't handle it. But what the Ephesians realize here is, Yes he can! And he will. Break the power of those secret sins; burn those useless magic scrolls (Acts 19:18-19). Whatever the cost, turn yourselves over to Jesus entirely – confess your sins, break the ties that bind you to unbelieving worldly ways, and go all in for the kingdom! That's what the Ephesian believers do here. They would rather have Jesus than silver or gold, or houses or lands, or applause, or worldwide fame; rather led by Jesus than “to be the king of a vast domain / or be held in sin's dread sway.” We sang it. But is it true – would we rather have Jesus lead?

And then Luke says it: “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20). The word of the Lord prevailed! There were a lot of false messages floating around Ephesus in those days. There was the false gospel of magic – that you could be saved from your troubles with the right secret tricks. There was the false gospel of Caesar – Ephesus was a big center of the imperial cult, had temples where you could worship Rome itself, or Julius Caesar, or Augustus – and Rome offered salvation from your barbarian ways by making you civilized, bringing order to your world through noble politics and strong leaders. There was the false gospel of Artemis, whose temple there was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. All that's left, though, is a single towering pillar. I've been there, I've seen it, and the birds make their nest at the top. And there was, of course, the false gospel of silver – that what matters most of all is profit, and in wealth is salvation from all your troubles, and that's what life is all about.

In the story, we meet a fellow named Demetrius, a leader in the silversmith's guild, who follows that message above all. Demetrius sees Paul's teaching as a threat to Artemis-worship, which is the livelihood of the city – after all, the Temple of Artemis served as an international bank and owned tens of thousands of acres of land – but, most important to Demetrius, his personal business. Demetrius is the prototype of so many companies today that adopt anti-Christian policies, agitate for anti-Christian change in society, because that kind of image is where the money is. They follow the false gospels of silver and Artemis – but may the word of the Lord prevail.

Yet where Demetrius stirs up a riot in the theater, agitating to protect his business in silver, the believers dismiss all the silver they could get from selling those magic scrolls – they've turned from the false gospels of magic, of Caesar, of Artemis, of silver, to follow Jesus in everything. The word of the Lord has prevailed in them – has prevailed over all the false gospels, has come out on top and won their allegiance. 

And the word of the Lord needs to prevail in us, and prevail mightily! Just like the Ephesian believers, we need to lay down our lives in surrender to the gospel. We need to submit to Jesus and let him reshape us, let him root out all the hidden pagan pockets in our souls. That's what the life of faith is: we lower our defenses, we present ourselves to Jesus, and with the scalpel of the Spirit, the Great Physician becomes our Great Surgeon, slicing and stitching and saving.

That's what it means for the word of the Lord to prevail in us, in our lives. It's not a one-time thing. In many churches, there's a great motto: “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” The church has been reformed, but it always needs to be reforming – and so do our lives. Jesus isn't done with us when we're born again. Paring away our hidden paganism is a lifelong process of the word of the Lord prevailing. As we gather here, we need to ask the question – in our own lives, and in our life together as a church – “Where do we need work next? What part of us is Jesus asking us to turn toward him, let our defenses down, surrender to him?” 

I can't promise it won't hurt. I'm sure it was painful for the Ephesians to watch 137 years' salary go up in smoke! I'm sure it wasn't easy to trust Jesus instead of those fancy incantations and spells. But it was worth it. Because in the big picture, those spells, those silver coins, pale next to the power of faith that enlists us on the Lord's side.

But the word of the Lord didn't just prevail in the believers' personal lives. The word of the Lord spread, the word of the Lord prevailed mightily in reaching the whole province. This is a missionary message! The word of the Lord prevailed over Jewish and Greek and Roman objections (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24). The word of the Lord prevailed over the resistance that cities and villages put up. 

During this whole season, the word of the Lord was at work, changing pre-Christians into disciples. And even when the riot broke out, and Paul had to leave the city... well, Luke doesn't write that Paul prevailed, he says that “the word of the Lord prevailed.” It wasn't about Paul. He was an effective messenger, but the power's in the message. All because Paul's faith, Paul's reliance on the Spirit, made Ephesus the perfect base for sending out mission teams to all the cities of the province. That's when the word of the Lord prevailed, and kept on prevailing after Paul was gone.

And that's our calling as a church – for people to be sent out into the community, so that the best description of Lancaster and Chester Counties might be, “The word of the Lord increased and prevailed mightily!” But that won't happen if we aren't on the Lord's side. That won't happen if we're so focused on ourselves – on battling over Caesar, or collecting silver, or defending our petty interests, or navigating life with a few secret tricks we've worked out – that we neglect the kingdom of God. The word of the Lord won't prevail unto salvation for our neighbors and our neighborhoods if we don't follow the Spirit, who was and still is God's gift for God's people on God's mission. 

The church is a missionary movement. Don't look at me; look out the windows. May the word of the Lord prevail out there! Pray this week for Jesus to show you – to show us – where to start moving, because all authority and power in heaven and earth are his, and he is with us always, even to the end of the age. Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

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