How Did We Get Here? A Sermon on Acts 13

We are making our way through Acts at a fairly good pace and we are seeing how the gospel is starting to make its way to the ends of the earth. We are starting to see a strategy unfold, and seeing how the way that the apostles and disciples are passing along the news isn’t just by starting a Twitter feed and letting all their friends know. They are making strategic moves in specific cities and key places of the empire so that this news gets as far as possible. On top of that, they aren’t just getting a bunch of people saved and believing in Jesus but they are sticking around and making disciples. Sometimes it would take a few years before they would leave a place as they teach, pray, fast and model what life in the new kingdom looks like. So a few weeks ago we talked about what disciples actually look like and how we go about making actual disciples. We saw that it was a process, a system of rituals and life together centered around Christ that creates disciples. We asked ourselves the question if our process here, and our life together here was actually making disciples. We realized that there was still some holes and that we may be a little lopsided but we are generally heading in the right direction. So this is what Paul and Barnabas were up to while in Antioch. But now it was time to move on. So this is where we land in Acts 13.

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene,Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Do you notice the common theme that has been present all through Acts? This isn’t a strategy by the apostles. They haven’t been moving forward because of the disciples. It’s always God and the Holy Spirit nudging them along, telling them where to go next. This is God’s plan and his strategy and these people are servants of that greater plan. God’s story, God’s rules. Luke goes through pains to keep reminding us that this isn’t a story about humans making good decisions. This is a story about God spreading his good news through humans.

I’m going to switch to The Message version for the rest just to help us get through it a bit quicker and easier.

Sent off on their new assignment by the Holy Spirit, Barnabas and Saul went down to Seleucia and caught a ship for Cyprus. The first thing they did when they put in at Salamis was preach God’s Word in the Jewish meeting places. They had John along to help out as needed.

They traveled the length of the island, and at Paphos came upon a Jewish wizard who had worked himself into the confidence of the governor, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man not easily taken in by charlatans. The wizard’s name was Bar-Jesus. He was as crooked as a corkscrew.

The governor invited Barnabas and Saul in, wanting to hear God’s Word firsthand from them. But Dr. Know-It-All (that’s the wizard’s name in plain English) stirred up a ruckus, trying to divert the governor from becoming a believer. But Saul (or Paul), full of the Holy Spirit and looking him straight in the eye, said, “You bag of wind, you parody of a devil-why, you stay up nights inventing schemes to cheat people out of God. But now you’ve come up against God himself, and your game is up. You’re about to go blind-no sunlight for you for a good long stretch.” He was plunged immediately into a shadowy mist and stumbled around, begging people to take his hand and show him the way.
When the governor saw what happened, he became a believer, full of enthusiasm over what they were saying about the Master.

We’ve all heard of famous movie plots of the new guy walking into a job, maybe as a police officer or something like that. He arrives and he is shocked to see injustice all around him. Everything seems corrupt and no one is saying anything. So he goes to his partner that has been around longer than him and tells him what he sees. The partner tells him to just keep quiet and ignore it. Things have been like this for a long time and there was no changing it now. That new guy is instantly faced with a decision – do you confront the injustice or do you compromise what you know to be right to keep your job, not ruffle feathers and just stay silent. This is the kind of situation that Paul would find himself in, needing to make the same decision. Paul is the bold one. He steps up and says some pretty harsh words to the false prophet magician guy. The words of a true prophet are not kind to those who are false. He just rips right into him.

Q: How do we deal with similar situations? Do you prefer confrontation or compromise? Is that a false dichotomy? Is there a third acceptable option?

“Christian mission then consists of helping people to do a little formation of life that, as we have seen, was happening all around the place in the early chapters of Acts. And so when we come to this great turning-point in Luke’s story, the start of the extraordinary triple journey that would take Paul right across Turkey and Greece and back again, and then again once more, and finally off to Rome itself, we would much prefer the story to be one of gentle persuasion rather than confrontation. We would have liked it better if Paul had gone about telling people the simple message of Jesus and finding that many people were happy to accept it and live by it.”
– N.T Wright

I’ve been to Africa now a few times, and one thing that is common is that whenever a guest is present they are given an opportunity to share or give a word of encouragement. There has been a number of circumstances now where I have a microphone shoved in my face out of nowhere and asked to ‘speak’ to a congregation that barely speaks my language. It’s this awkward moment where I don’t think anything I say is meaningful or important but I have to say something or it would be rude. So now Paul is on the move again and he shows up in Pisidian and he arrives at a Jewish place of worship, the Synagogue. They ask him if they have a word of encouragement for him. This is normal in these kinds of religious contexts. It is the same kind of culture of welcoming guests. So Paul takes the opportunity and jumps into his speech.

Paul’s speech is pretty long, it’s the next forty or so verses. So I won’t read it all but I’ll explain it quickly. The speech is broken into basically three parts. Each part is signified by Paul restating his greeting. “Fellow Children of Abraham and God-Fearing Gentiles” or “Therefore, my friends.” The first part is claiming and proving that Jesus is a member of David’s royal lineage and is the fulfillment of God’s promise. He talks about Israel and their exile and the prophets and the judges and eventually King David. This is an important part of the story which explains a lot about the genealogies that are present throughout the Bible. They are all leading somewhere. There is a point to them. They are all leading to Jesus. Jesus is what they had been waiting for. And trust me, they were a people of waiting. That’s all they did. They waited and waited for God to show and up and say what he was going to do. Now here is Paul in the middle of the Synagogue and he saying that they don’t have to wait anymore.

Think of it this way. Your sister is having a baby in another country. You have been sitting by the phone just waiting for them to call and tell you the baby came so you can go visit. Finally the phone call comes but it’s not your family, it’s a random person that you’ve never met before and he’s trying to explain to you how the baby was already born weeks ago and that you need to fly out there right now and meet the baby because he’s already starting to grow up. This is the kind of scenario that Paul explains about Jesus. They were all waiting for a Saviour and Paul was doing an excellent job explaining how Jesus was the person they were waiting for. Paul is getting better and better and convincing people that their hope has now been realized.

The second part of the speech is Paul getting a bit more specific and giving some answers as to why it took them so long to find out that Jesus was the Saviour they were waiting for. Even though God fearers were pouring over the scriptures they continued to miss over and over again the what the prophets were saying and pointing to. They missed it so bad that they killed the very hope that they were waiting for. But Paul reassures them, that this is all part of God’s plan. Because even though they were successful in killing him, they were not successful in keeping him dead. God turned up and raised him from the dead.

The whole speech is centered around this very fact. They would have had all sorts of people claiming to be a messiah coming through their Synagogues, but eventually they would have all died. Jesus was no exception. However, the difference is that Jesus didn’t stay dead. God rose him from the dead. Paul points to David and shows that when David died, his body decayed and he was no more. However, Jesus’ body did not see decay. He is alive. So everything that he said and proclaimed was true and coming true before their very eyes.

The third part of the speech is a little bit more harsh. I wonder if the people in the synagogue regretted giving Paul a chance to speak. Paul explains that this hope is available to everyone. The forgiveness of sins, the freedom from the law and to be made right before God. This was what the law was supposed to do, but it never could do. Jesus makes it possible. Paul from this point instantly goes into a little bit of an accusatory mode. He quotes one of the prophets Habakuk.

“‘Look, you scoffers,
wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe,
even if someone told you.'”

I think there is something inside the human psyche that doesn’t want to ever miss out. There is a term that has been floating around lately for people like me. It’s called a FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. And it’s true. If there is something happening I want to be there. The worst case scenario for me is when there is two things happening at the same time. I hate not being there and I get frustrated and probably have a small little mental break down that I can’t be there. I wonder if this is built into a lot of humans on a more grander scale. When God says something like this here. Doesn’t it make you just go crazy? There is no way I wouldn’t believe it! Of course I’m going to be there in the front row when you do that thing that you are going to do. I think Paul is an architect of words. He takes passages from all over the scriptures and he uses them in this beautifully molded sculpture of an argument to bring along these folks in seeing Jesus for who he is. Then he instantly makes people feel left out if they don’t believe what he is saying. It’s almost manipulation if you ask me.

So I’ll read the last bit of Acts 13 here so we can all come together here at the end. So Paul just finished quoting Habakuk and that is where we will come in.

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Things are starting to get intense a little bit now and we are starting to see a chasm being created between the Jews and the Gentiles. This will be an ongoing separation throughout the rest of the book of Acts as the message starts to spread. The message goes out to the Jews first because they have been the ones that were supposed to spread this message in the first place and then they go straight to the Gentiles. After all, the very purpose of Israel in the first place was to be a light to the Gentiles. Paul has no hesitation in reminding them of this. Paul seems to walk into this place and cause a lot more strife and division than anything.

Something though that we begin to notice is that re-telling this story to specific audiences becomes a major tactic for Paul to explain this to people. From the quote I send in theStory update e-mail, this is what N.T Wright says.

Paul’s strategy is a challenge to us all, to understand our audience well enough to know how to tell them the story in a way they will find compelling, how to setup signposts in a language they can read.
-N.T. Wright

I think this is an art of telling the Jesus story that we have lost. Our story now consists generally of saying a special prayer, going to church and being a good person so that you go to heaven and not hell when you die. There is no substance to our story and it certainly isn’t compelling to the culture around us anymore. It is barely compelling to those that grew up in the church. For the Jews and Gentiles in this situation the stories of Jesus coming from the line of King David and quoting a few scripture verses was enough to spark interest amongst the masses. Unfortunately I don’t think the same is true for us today. Our approach is different. We have to tell the story in a different way. This doesn’t make us more right or them wrong. It just realizes that we come from different worlds and understand our place in this world differently than someone does.

Let me give you another example. Our friend across the street, Shawn, he has an idea at the back of his head to save the world. It is what drives him. He wakes up in the morning because of this idea, every conversation he has centers around this idea. If you ask him one day to tell you why he started Artwalk, his answer is similar to the kind of answer Paul gives. He gives a history lesson, shows you proof about why the world has gone wrong and then shows you what the solution is. He goes back fifteen years ago when he realized that the world should be split into bio-zones and not national lines. The world was ordered wrong and we were perpetuating a system of waste and disaster that was bound to mess things up even more. So his plan is three fold. He wants to build up the native plants that are in an area and save native plants that are starting to be destroyed by development. So he started “Return the Landscape” as an attempt to make this work and grow this as a movement. Then he thought he needed a place to congregate masses of people to help promote and collect these ideas of why the world is messed up and solutions on how to fix it and move into the right direction. As an artists he knew one of the best ways to face into controversial messages and to celebrate beautiful solutions was through art. So Sarnia Artwalk was born. Now, his third part of his plan is starting to unfold in terms of waste diversion. Taking things that are normally thrown into landfills and turning them into something useful and productive. He’s working towards making pellets for pellet stoves and converting useless items into useful tools.

That whole story comes simply from asking him how did he start Artwalk. He has key signposts along the way and he has purpose and intention in the direction that he is heading. He has a story to tell and his entire life is consumed by this story. Try it sometime. Ask Shawn why he started Artwalk and if you let him, you will get the entire story told with a massive smile on his face because it’s a story that gives him hope and purpose in the world. Very rarely do I get the same kind of story from Christians today. Blank faces are usually what I see when asked to tell the story of their faith.

Q: If you were to retell your story to someone what would be key points that you would land on to tell your story? What are the questions, hopes and concerns of those that you would be retelling your story to? Would your story about your relationship with Jesus be interesting, offensive or boring to anyone else?

Shawn would die to have what we have here right now. If there is one thing I realize about Shawn is that most of the time he is alone in his passion. Sure he has different people here and there that will have their yards landscaped or jump into the festival. But nobody else is pushing these ideals as much as he is. Here at theStory, what we are supposed to be is a group of people that all agree and are passionate about the same story. There is ninety folks on that Family Tree chart over there and the reason you are on that Family Tree is because you are part of theStory. What is theStory? It is supposed to be a community that makes Jesus Lord in their lives, and lives and breathes the kingdom all day long. We are supposed to be a community that lives out these things that we talk about every week.

I’m sure Shawn would kill for ninety people to be gathered around his ideas and to meet once a week so that he can explain the ins and outs of everyone of them. Eventually I’m sure he would hope that he isn’t just explaining these ideas and showing people about native plants. What he would hope is that these ninety people catch the fire. That they start becoming the new Shawn’s and they start promoting and living their lives around these ideas and things that he is saying. This is because his story that he lives and breathes is bigger than himself. He sees it as a story that the entire world can embrace and make their own.

This is why we did a sermon like we did a few weeks ago. Remember the graph with the box in the middle and the kinds of people that come out of the box when we are done? The question we have to keep asking ourselves is are we actually starting to catch onto these ideas that we are talking about. Are our lives actually starting to take shape to the words that we speak together on a Sunday morning? Are these stories that we immerse ourselves in actually becoming our stories? We have to keep asking ourselves, how did we get here? When Paul gets an opportunity to share, he shares his story of how they got to where they are. When we are asked to share our story, do we know how we got here? Do we know what is happening or do we just do whatever we were trained to do?

Eventually history lessons like Paul gave, like Shawn gives, they turn into warnings. They aren’t warnings like we are used to “believe this or you will go to hell.” That isn’t the warning that Paul gives. Rather the warning is that you are going to miss out on the eternal life that is here for you. This isn’t a threat. It’s a desperate warning of not wanting anyone to miss out on what God is doing here and now in our midst. The kingdom of God is here. Are we just sitting on our butts and showing up at church? The kingdom of God is here and among us. We need to live it. We need to breathe it. We need to jump into the middle of God’s redemptive plan and make his story our story. We don’t want to miss out. Jesus has risen and the new creation has begun and we can be part of it. Sitting here on a Sunday will not suffice. Just listening and speaking about the plan over and over again once a week is not the redemptive plan God had in mind.

So this morning I encourage you. Discover your story and your place in God’s plan. Take cues from Paul and Shawn and know what you are driven by and then be driven by it. Have reasons for what you are doing here, for why you wake up in the morning and why you come to a place like this every week. You could miss out. It’s very likely. It’s very likely we all could miss out. Let’s dive right into this story, see that our sins have been forgiven and enter into the eternal life that has been promised to us here and now.

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