Monday, November 10, 2008

This week's sermon: Thine is the Power

Acts 19:8-20.
In this section of scripture, we recall that Paul has returned to Ephesus, has helped to correct the “Baptism of John” confusion, and now he is settling into his normal routine of speaking in the synagogue. If you recall, when he briefly stopped in Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem and Antioch, Paul had gone up to the synagogue and spoken with the Jewish people there. When he had to leave, they asked him to stay and he said he would be back, if God was willing. Apparently God was willing, because here we find him fulfilling his word to return and speak with them further. For three months, Paul spoke and reasoned and argued for the Gospel. After this time, there arose some who were in opposition to the message of Christ, and so Paul found somewhere else to meet.

Luke tells us that Paul began holding classes in the school of Tyrannus. We don't really know who Tyrannus was, if he just rented the space to any scholar or philosopher who wanted it, or if he was a Greek who had come to know Jesus and was a follower of “the Way.” Paul taught every day in this lecture hall, and some manuscripts even give a time-frame: from the sixth to the tenth hour. That was about from noon to four. So, if we were to follow Paul's example we would all have church meetings everyday from noon to four. Then we would all know what is in the scriptures, and we would be really solid on all our theology. That would be great, but we have to remember also, this was some of the first these people had heard of Jesus. They didn't have a copy of the Bible at their fingertips—in fact the majority of the New Testament had not even been written. So, even though they were meeting four hours everyday, we have the word of God available at all times. Don't take your Bible to work? No problem, just Google your favorite version on-line. Paul was there everyday, but it was not necessarily possible for everyone who wanted to learn to come everyday, so it probably varied from day to day who Paul was talking with about the Messiah.

In this two year period of time, God was at work doing amazing things. Luke tells us that God did extraordinary miracles through Paul—miracles that were unusual even for Paul. Luke says that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick and their illnesses were cured and evil spirits left them. We here of some similar claims today. I don't know that I would believe most of those claims, because Luke is telling us that these are extraordinary. I am not saying it couldn't happen, God did these miracles through Paul at that time, he could choose to do the same today. But I would imagine that Paul did not advertise and say “send off for your handkerchief touched by me and be healed.” They were events orchestrated by God, not a marketer.

We see next what happens when people try to make things happen in their own power by copying what they see as a formula for miracle making. The sons of Sceva thought they would capitalize on this new trick they had heard about. They knew that Paul was preaching the name of Jesus, and healing in that name, and even driving out demons in that name. They knew it worked for real, and they wanted to be able to use the same technique to do the same in their “Demon Busters” business. This is what they did for a living, they roamed around and cast out demons. Did it work before? I don't know, but Luke tells us that it most definitely was not working for them in this instance. They confront a man who was demon-possessed, and tell him “In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, come out!” And the demon says “What? Who are you, and who do you think you are telling me what to do?”

The problem they ran into is that you cannot misrepresent in the spiritual realm. In this world you can misrepresent yourself. You can lie and tell people you have all kinds of knowledge and experience, and they may buy it hook, line and sinker, but it won't happen in the spiritual realm. Do you remember when Jesus came into the region of the Gadarenes? He met that man possessed by a legion of demons and before he said a word, the demons knew who he was and were begging him not to torture them. And remember when Paul was preaching in Philippi and the slave girl followed him for days saying, “These men are servants of the most high God, they are telling you the way to be saved.” She knew this information because of the demon possessing her and its connection to the spiritual realm. You can't fool demons.

These sons of Sceva were impersonating someone connected to Paul and Jesus. The demon said, “I know all about Jesus, and I have first hand knowledge of Paul, but who are you?” They had no authority to use Jesus name. Without that personal connection to Jesus, neither do we. Our power does not come from words or actions or ceremonies, our power comes from a personal connection to Jesus the son of God. Because the sons of Sceva were so foolish as to try to use the name of Jesus with no access to its power, everyone began taking the message of Jesus more seriously.

Even those who already believed brought their sorcery books and gave them up. This event demonstrated that power over our circumstances or other people or the spiritual realm is not found in magic and witchcraft. The only real source of power is in Jesus, and our access to that power is in a personal relationship with him through the Holy Spirit. We might be tempted to be shocked that these believers were still holding onto their sorcery books, but how many of you have read your horoscope in the paper since you believed? How many of you have a lucky charm, or are superstitious about something? I know a minister who thinks that bad things come in threes, that is superstitious. Superstition is anything we do that gives mystical power to something other than God. And it is harmful because it is a form of idolatry.

Luke tells us that the scrolls that were brought by these believers were worth fifty thousand drachmas. A drachma was a days wage for a common laborer, and 2 drachmas was the daily wage of an architect. At that rate, 50,000 drachmas would be 50,000 days wage for a laborer or 25,000 days wage for an architect. Break that down a little more and it would take one man 137 years to pay for those scrolls working every day of his life. It would take an architect only about 68 and a half years. Even if there were LOTS of people bringing these scrolls to destroy them, the money these people had spent on their superstition and sorcery was staggering! And their willingness to give up as worthless what they had spent so much for is even more staggering. Luke sums it up with these words, “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.”

When we let go of what we've been hanging on to, God's word spreads and his power is manifest. When we hang on to our superstitions and our idolatry, trusting in trinkets or sayings or mantras to bring us power we bind the work God wants to do in and through us. When we try to wrestle power and control from God's hands, we not only stop our growth, we put ourselves in a dangerous place. We have no power on our own. Words have no power on their own. The only power we possess is the ability to call on God and let his power do the work for us.

What are we hanging onto? Are there areas of our lives where we still demand to control and struggle to have power over? We have to let go. We have to turn our worthless things over to God; those things we've been trusting in to keep us safe or to give us what we want. If we aren't trusting in God's power, we are trusting in worthless imitations. Let's give them up. Let's lay them down, and let's allow God to have his way in us so that we can see his power truly at work in our lives.

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