Monday, November 17, 2008

This week's sermon: God at Work Without Our Help

Acts 19:21-41.
We come into this account with Paul having been teaching in Ephesus for two years. It was starting to affect the trade in gold and silver idols, and a craftsman named Demetrius decides to do something about it. He gathers his fellow craftsmen together and gives them a nice speech about how Paul has been preaching against man-made gods and that not only will their trade suffer, but their goddess was in danger of being defamed.

Verses 23-28 say, "23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. 25 He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: 'Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.' 28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!'"

What was the main problem here? Was it that they were so concerned about their goddess being defamed, or were they more worried that they would lose business if people stopped buying their gold and silver statues? To me it seems pretty obvious that if their chief concern was blasphemy of their goddess, they would have been rioting for two years, because that is how long Paul had been speaking to people about the gospel message. They had two years to file a complaint. They had two years to confront him to his face in the Lecture Hall of Tyrannus, where he had been daily from noon to 4 for the last two years. No, to me it seems clear that their motivation here, was disruption of their commerce.

If Paul had come preaching a new god or goddess that they could immortalize in new and different gold and silver statues, these men would have been throwing a party. Instead, because their profits would suffer, they started a riot.

The craftsmen had come because they were mad that their business was down. They began shouting a mantra that would inflame people's passions. Some people got so caught up in the crowd, they didn't even know why they were there. Some people had caught up the chant, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” other people were shouting something entirely different!

Some from the Jewish community, probably wanting to give a defense that they were not connected with this Paul trouble-maker, pushed forward Alexander. When Alexander came forward, the crowd saw he was Jewish and began shouting, in unison this time, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two whole hours. They had been scattered and in disarray, but when Alexander stepped forward to speak, they united in their defense of the goddess.

The problem was that the crowd knew he was Jewish, a worshiper of the One God, who did not have a face that could be carved into stone or molded and cast into metal statues. They were as much of a threat to the goddess and the craftsmen's trade as the followers of Jesus. And the crowd probably still thought of Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism. In this situation, no logical argument concerning separation of the followers of The Way and Judaism would work. In fact, discussion of religion would probably inflame them more.

Finally, the man bringing reason into this mob was the city clerk. He was probably nervous that they would all be charged with rioting. Rioting would cause a more strict enforcement of Roman rule, which meant more guards, more soldiers, more of a mess and a hassle for him. The clerk stood before the people, and calmed them down with a warning that the men brought before the mob were not guilty of any crime. He reminded them that they didn't want to be charged with rioting and directed them to the appropriate channels if there were any grievances. And then, like any good official, he assumed the authority to dismiss the crowd of rioters.

So, what is happening in this passage? Where are the great heroes of the faith doing heroic things? Why is this in here anyway? All very good questions. In this passage we see primarily what happens when culture shifts happen because of the spread of the Gospel message. It still happens today, the status quo is threatened and those with something to loose react poorly. Some craftsmen start a riot because their business is in danger. Other people pick it up because it is hard to resist a good riot. They grab Gaius and Aristarchus because they happen to be the Christians they come across.

Where are the heroes of the faith? Well, Paul is standing back pondering and debating whether he should go to the rescue of his companions. The other believers tell him no. His friends in government tell him no, don't go. So, he doesn't go. The heroes of the faith stayed home, where it was safe.

So why is this passage in here? Why tell us about the time there was a riot and Paul stayed home and no one went to rescue the others from the hands of the crowd, and no one spoke up defending the gospel message? Why? I don't know Luke's reason, but I will tell you what makes sense in light of the rest of the book. Remember way back when we started walking through Acts, how we talked about the name of the book. The book is titled Acts, which we see as the Acts of God; through the Holy Spirit, through the Apostles, through miracles and signs and wonders.

I believe this story is in the book because we see God at work in spite of the fact that Paul stayed home. Because it is not what Paul does that is important, but what God does. It is an act of God that the men who were hauled to the stadium by a mob of people, some so confused they didn't know why they had come, that those Christians were not harmed. It is an act of God that the crowd was settled down and dismissed without incident. It is an act of God that the people listened to reason. And that act of God came through who? Through the City clerk, a man who was not a believer, but who God used to deliver his people safe and sound from the hands of an angry mob.

Sometimes God calls us to action. Sometimes he calls us to wait. Sometimes he saves us from harm by giving us words to say in the middle of a tense situation. Sometimes, though, in spite of no friend at hand, in spite of an impossible situation, God rescues us through an unlikely ally. The point is that every time he intervenes on our behalf, it is God alone that saves us, it is God alone who deserves our thanks, and our praise.

James tells us in the first chapter “16 Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” He gives us every good thing in our lives, and he can be trusted to continue to care for us because he doesn't change. He doesn't wake up one morning and decide to take the day off. Jesus said he is always busy causing the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous, and causing the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. God shows his love for us whether we are following him or not by providing a world rich with resources for us to live in. He shows his care as Paul told the Athenians on the Areopagus, by orchestrating our lives--where and when we live--to give us maximum opportunity to reach out and find him.

Finally, he showed his love for us in this, that while we were still his enemies, living in opposition and rebellion against him, that he sent his son to die for us so that we would escape the death penalty and have a chance to be in right relationship with him.

We have a lot to be thankful for this morning. We have a lot to praise God for. Even if it is just that we have food, clothing, a place to live, or people that love us, we all have something for which we can be thankful to the Lord. Let's take a moment to Thank God for the things he has done for us and for who he is in his goodness and mercy.

No comments: