************ Sermon on Acts 13:7,12 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on September 13, 2009
"He Wanted to Hear the Word of God"
Topic: HearingDoes this surprise you? It shouldn't! Don't we see the same thing happening with worship and Bible Study?
Title: Violin Player
Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. A man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar from a woman who threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money, but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
The rest of the story: No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before the subway concert, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each.
This morning, we kick off a new church year. I want to remind you, as I do every year, that Trinity United Reformed Church is centered on the Word. Everything we do focuses on the Word: our worship, Sunday School and Catechism, choir pieces, GEMS, Cadets, Early Teen Ministry, Youth Group, Young Adults, Couples Bible Study, Sunday Evening Fellowship, Morning and Evening Coffee Break, Small Group Bible Study, Men's Bible Study, Senior Bible Study. This is the time of the year when all of these programs and ministries start up again. Are you going to be part of this or are you going to be deaf and blind to what is right in front of you?
I The Word of God Proclaimed
A Up to this point in the book of Acts, witness has been borne to Jesus "in Jerusalem," and "in all Judea and Samaria" – just like Jesus said would happen – but there has been no witness to "the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Remember, too, what the Lord said to Ananias about Saul of Tarsus? "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15); but this, too, has not happened. In our Scripture reading from Acts 13 we see the beginning of the fulfilment of both prophecies when Barnabas and Saul are sent to "the ends of the earth."
I want you to notice how the fulfilment of the two prophecies come about:
(Acts 13:2) 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."We need to ask five questions about this.
B First, to whom did the Holy Spirit reveal His will? Who is the "they" who were worshiping and fasting? To whom did the Spirit speak? The only answer can be the church members as a whole.
Second, what did the Spirit reveal to the church? "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." What work? Where? When? Notice how vague it is? It is vague like the call to Abram. Remember God's call to Abram? "Go to the land I will show you" (Gen 12:1). But not a word is said about the what or the where or the when. Would you be willing to leave everything for something this vague? Like Abram, Barnabas and Saul received a clear call to go but they were not told a word about the what or the where or the when. Like Abram, they had to obey in faith and step out in faith.
Third, how was God's call disclosed? We are not told. Maybe through one of the prophets and teachers mentioned in verse 1; maybe through the testimony of the Spirit in the hearts and minds of the believers. We just aren't told.
Fourth, how did the church respond to the call? Verse 3 mentions prayer. What did they pray about? To test God's call and to intercede for Barnabas and Saul. Verse 3 also mentions fasting. I want you to notice that fasting does not occur alone. It is linked with worship in verse 2 and with prayer in verse 3. Fasting is a negative action (abstention from food and other distractions) in order to better concentrate on a positive action (worship and prayer). Then notice what happens next: "they placed their hands on them and sent them off" (Acts 13:3). This was not an ordination service like we held in May for Robert; rather, it was a commissioning service – like we are doing this morning for our teachers and leaders.
Fifth, who commissioned Barnabas and Saul? According to verse 4, Barnabas and Saul were "sent on their way by the Holy Spirit." But, according to verse 3, it was the church that "sent them off." So, who commissioned them and sent them? Was it the Spirit or was it the church? Yes. Yes? Yes. Let's put it this way: the Spirit sent them out, by instructing the church to do so; and, the church sent them out, having been directed by the Spirit to do so.
Along this line, I want you to notice something verse 5 says: "John was with them as their helper." Barnabas and Saul were chosen and sent by the Spirit; John Mark, on the other hand, was chosen by Barnabas and Saul and not by the Spirit. Which is why verse 13 can tell us that "John left them to return to Jerusalem."
Why all this talk of sending and calling as we start off our new church year? Let me remind you of what Paul writes to the church at Rome:
(Rom 10:14-15) How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (15) And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"Do you see the proclamation chain? Commissioned/sent, preach, hear, believe, pray. We, in Trinity URC, are blessed to be part of that chain. But notice, the focus of it all is the Word and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Do you see how serious God takes the proclamation of the Gospel? It is so serious that God has set up a holy transmission for it. It is so serious that God lets no one speak their own word or on their own authority. Whether it is Barnabas and Saul, Robert and myself, Sunday School and Catechism teachers, youth leaders and counselors, Bible Study leaders and mentors, we all speak as those sent by the Spirit to proclaim the Word and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
C What happens next? Barnabas and Saul sail to Cyprus and do a quick whirlwind preaching tour around the entire island. It is here that the church begins its witness to "the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). It is here, too, that Saul carries the name of Jesus "before the Gentiles and their kings" (Acts 9:15). We see this with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. It is after this that Saul was known as Paul. So, we have Paul the Apostle sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with Paul the Roman proconsul.
Our text from Acts 13:7 tells us something very significant about Sergius Paulus:
(Acts 13:7) ... Sergius Paulus ... the proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.Let me repeat the last phrase: Sergius Paulus "wanted to hear the word of God." He recognized something of the beauty and majesty of what was proclaimed by Barnabas and Saul. He recognized his intellectual and spiritual hunger for the truth. So, he wanted to hear the Word of God.
At family visiting a number of weeks ago we heard a couple of confessions. If the kids lead the devotions, they look for a short psalm – the shorter the better. And, the kids keep the prayers short too. Because dad always does long Bible readings and long prayers. Does any of this sound familiar? Another family admitted that they are not as faithful as they should be with devotions. Does this sound like we want to hear the Word of God?
We have members who easily miss worship. We have members who sleep through the service. We have members who check their email and send text messages during worship. We have members who allow their minds to drift a thousand miles elsewhere while in worship. I see all of this from the pulpit. Does this sound like we want to hear the Word of God?
I can mention children and youth who miss Sunday School and Catechism, adults who never attend a Bible Study, members who rarely or never crack open the Bible for personal devotions. Does this sound like we want to hear the Word of God?
II The Word of God Opposed
A There is one person, for sure, who does not want the Word of God proclaimed and heard. That person we have been meeting as we have been going through the book of Revelation. I am talking about Satan, the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil. We know that Satan has two beasts to carry out his purposes: the beast out of the sea who persecutes the church and the beast out of the earth who deceives the church. We see both beasts at work in Acts 13.
At the end of Acts 13 we see the beast out of the sea persecuting the church.
(Acts 13:50) But the Jews 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.
In our Scripture reading we see the beast out of the earth and its work of deception in or through a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was a kind of court wizard who used superstition and magical rites. A couple of sentences later he is called "Elymas." The name "Bar-Jesus" means "son of salvation." The name "Elymas," on the other hand, appears to mean "son of the devil." Did you catch that? In the same way as Saul's name is changed to "Paul," so is the name "Bar-Jesus" changed to Elymas because he is a son of the devil rather than a son of salvation. And he shows he is a son of the devil by his opposition to the Word and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is Paul who recognizes the work of Satan here, the work of Satan's second beast:
(Acts 13:10) You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?
B Look at what happens next: Paul pronounces God's judgment on Elymas.
(Acts 13:11) "Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand.
Does this sound familiar? It should. Isn't this what happened to Saul when he went to Damascus to persecute the church? A light from heaven flashed around Saul. He fell to the ground. And, the voice from the light said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" When Saul got up from the ground, he could see nothing (Acts 9:1-9).
How fitting the judgment! Those who claim light are put into darkness.
Again, look at the steps God takes so that the Word and Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and heard. As the Belgic Confession puts it, God has a special care for us and for our salvation (Article 3). He wants His Spirit-filled servants to proclaim the Word; He wants His chosen ones to hear the Word in spite of persecution and deception.
C I need to tell you, my brothers and sisters, that the second beast continues to find people like Elymas to oppose the Word of God. The California Department of Education is filled with servants of the second beast – servants who oppose any and all reading of Scripture in any public school setting. We find these servants at the national level as well – men and women who try to remove all mention of the Christian God from the public square. Sometimes – and this is the hardest thing to say – we find servants of the second beast within the church: false prophets and teachers, heretics, liars all.
III The Word of God Believed
A Which brings us to the last point of this message. So far, we have looked at the Word of God proclaimed. Then, we looked at the Word of God opposed. Now, we look at the Word of God believed. Listen to how our text puts it:
(Acts 13:12) When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.There you have it: the proconsul believed. There are some commentators who say the proconsul was not truly converted; that he was like Simon Magus who only pretended to believe so he could get and use the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:13,18). There are others who say that Paul and Barnabas mistook courtesy for faith. But the Greek word for "belief" here is the same word used elsewhere in Acts for genuine faith (Acts 14:1; 17:34; 19:18). The proconsul's faith was real, heart-felt, sincere.
And, notice how he came to faith: through God's holy transmission the Spirit brought him to faith. Paul and Barnabas were sent, they preached, Sergius Paulus heard, and then he believed. That is the way every Christian comes to faith. That is the only way any Christian comes to faith. By hearing and studying and meditating upon the Word.
Sergius Paulus hears and believes and lives forever.
We are told that Sergius Paulus was "amazed." He was astonished. He was astounded. Why? Because, with his own eyes he saw the Spirit overthrow the second beast, he saw the apostle confound the sorcerer, he saw the Gospel triumph over magic.
B Now, there is a strange incident one chapter earlier that is in direct contrast to this. Listen to it:
(Acts 12:21-23) On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. (22) They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." (23) Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.Herod pretended to be the voice of God, and he died. Sergius Paulus held a position in the Roman Empire very similar to that of King Herod. Yet, he believed the Word of God, and he inherited eternal life.
Do you hear the message? The Word of God triumphs. It triumphs over sorcery and magic. It triumphs over those who try to usurp its place.
Well-known Broadway producer Jed Harris once became convinced he was losing his hearing. He visited a specialist, who pulled out a gold watch and asked, "Can you hear this ticking?" How true of so many of us today! We just don't listen to God.
"Of course," Harris replied.
The specialist walked to the door and asked the question again. Harris concentrated and said, "Yes, I can hear it clearly." Then the doctor walked into the next room and repeated the question a third time. A third time Harris said he could hear the ticking.
"Mr. Harris," the doctor concluded, "there is nothing wrong with your hearing. You just don't listen."
-- Clifton Fadiman, Little, Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Brown & Company (Boston, Toronto, London) pp. 266-267
At the start of another church year, I want to challenge every person here to be like Sergius Paulus: in the face of opposition, deception, and persecution, I pray that you want to hear the Word of God; and, I pray that you believe the Word of God.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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