St Michael’s, 5th June 2016
Readings – Acts 13:13-52; Matthew 11:20-24
You never forget your first sermon. Mine was a brief affair at Jesus College, Cambridge, in the august surroundings of the historic chapel. The passage was from Mark’s gospel; the subject was the teacher of the law asking Jesus which was the greatest command. I waffled on about Christianity not being a denial but a submission of the intellect, and afterwards the dean seemed genuinely pleased with my efforts. Fortunately my handwritten notes were thrown away a long time ago. But it was a start, and somehow 26 years later I am still preaching, and hopefully still improving.
Now today we are coming to Paul’s first recorded sermon in the book of Acts, although what strikes me immediately is the difference between my first effort and his. Paul of course by this stage was no callow student. He had spent three years after his conversion privately meditating and reflecting on the Scriptures. He was then called by Barnabas to help build up the church in Antioch, and although we can’t be sure of the exact timescale, by the time he began his first missionary journey in Acts 13 he is already described in verse 1 as one of the prophets and teachers in that church.
So Paul sets out from the South-East corner of Turkey, sails to Cyprus and then makes his way inland into the Roman province into what we would now call Western Turkey, where confusingly he ends up in a different town also called Antioch, sometimes known as Pisidian Antioch to help make things a little bit clearer. There he and Barnabas, as men from a devout Jewish background, go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and news of their arrival has clearly gone ahead of them, because after the readings from Scripture they are invited to speak.
It is at this point that Paul stands up and delivers his first recorded sermon, and unlike mine, it has well stood the test of time. Let’s go through it in more detail, and see what particular points we can take away from it.
The first thing we should notice is that it was appropriate to its audience.
Paul here is preaching in a synagogue. The people listening were either Jewish or outsiders who were interested in following the Jewish religion. They had a deep knowledge of what we would call the Old Testament. Their Scriptures formed the basis of their worship and their daily lives. They would have been curious to know how the stories they had heard about Jesus of Nazareth related to these Scriptures.
That is why Paul begins his sermon by taking them through the history of Israel. We don’t have time to look at verses 17-31 in any depth, but in essence Paul makes three main points (well, he was a preacher, after all). He reminds his hearers how, verse 17, The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers and how God showed His love and care for those He had chosen. He then goes on and tells them how God gave them David as their king, and finally he announces in verse 23 that From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised. It’s in this way that Paul is then able to begin talking about the events of Jesus’ life and the meaning of his death and resurrection.
But Paul wasn’t the sort of preacher who had just one gospel message that he delivered wherever he went. He could talk about Jewish history to the folk in Pisidian Antioch because that was what they were interested in. The same talk, however, would have gone down like a lead balloon if, say, he was talking to a group of pagans or philosophers – it just wouldn’t have connected at all. By contrast, we will be looking next week at what happened when he arrived in a place called Lystra, and the locals thought he was one of the Greek gods. Paul’s message there is very different and he certainly doesn’t try to quote from Scripture. Later on, in Acts 17, Paul finds himself in Athens speaking to a group of learned philosophers, and there his approach is different again.
Even though Paul himself was of a Jewish background, he always made sure that the message he gave was appropriate to his audience. And that’s a really important point. If you start where people are at, not only are you more likely to make yourself understood, you also show that you care for them, and respect them. There really is nothing worse than Christians who go round determined to share the one message with anyone they meet in a language no-one can understand.
Having said which, for us who are believers, it is important to realise we can’t simply ignore the Old Testament background to our faith. Sometimes at Christmas I ask children when the story of Jesus starts, and I get a variety of answers. One might talk about Jesus’ birth in a manger in Bethlehem, another about the angel’s visit to Mary in Nazareth. And I guess that’s where many adults believe the story of Jesus begins as well.
But the astonishing truth is, right from the beginning of time, our Heavenly Father planned to send His Son into the world for us. And the Old Testament helps us to understand something of this mysterious and magnificent plan. That’s exactly the same point Paul is making when he quotes from the Scriptures in his sermon.
So in verse 33 he quotes from Psalm 2 – a psalm we will be looking at next month. There David talks about God appointing a king to rule on Mount Zion and declaring him to be His Son. This is clearly no ordinary king because he will reign over the nations to the furthest points of the earth, and Paul’s point is clear. This psalm can only refer to the coming of Jesus now risen from the dead who reigns with all authority and might.
Paul then moves on in the next few verses to quote from Psalm 16 and Isaiah 55. Psalm 16 contains the promise that the Lord will not let His Holy One see decay. Again, as far as Paul is concerned, that promise can only point forward to Jesus, because David and all the other kings of Israel have long since died and been buried. It is through this same Jesus that we are able to claim the promises made to David, in fulfilment of the words of Isaiah 55.
No doubt Paul developed his arguments rather more fully in his original sermon, and I suspect what we have here are edited highlights. But beyond all the details of these individual verses, Paul reminds us again just how important it is to understand and to value the Scriptures we now call the Old Testament. Yes, the Old Testament is sometimes difficult for us to read. Yes, let’s be honest, the Old Testament is sometimes rather dry and boring. There’s a good reason why when I talk with people about their faith I don’t advise them to start reading the Bible from the beginning. But as we grow in our faith it is good to see how the Old Testament prepares the way for the coming of Jesus.
Only if you’re talking with pagans or Greek philosophers don’t make it your main argument! If the subject comes up of who Jesus is and where He has come from, yes, some knowledge of the Old Testament is a useful backup. But always start with where the other person is coming from, and learn to live in their world first. That’s what Paul did, as he explains in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews … To those not having the law I became like one not having the law … To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
Paul’s sermon was appropriate to his audience.
Secondly, Paul’s sermon concentrated on the cross.
Because that really is the point and purpose of any sermon. Paul could, I suppose, have spent all his time going through the finer points of the Old Testament and I am sure his audience would have been thoroughly educated as a result. But – and this is a point preachers sometimes forget – the reason why sermons exist is actually to lead people to a deeper and fuller faith in Jesus Christ.
So, yes, it is important that Paul quotes from Scripture to establish who Jesus is. But he doesn’t just want his listeners to be clear about Jesus’ identity. He wants them to realise that this message about Jesus demands a response. And so step by step, verse by verse, his whole sermon builds up to the challenge of verse 38: Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.
You see, the Christian faith was never meant to be a spectator sport where the congregation could listen to the preacher, agree with every word he said, and then leave half an hour later to get on with their own lives. The Christian faith was meant to be good news which is heard and acted upon, as the word of God speaks to the hearts and minds of those who listen.
And like Paul my greatest passion and concern is also that every single person here this morning knows that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to them. Because without concentrating on the cross of Christ, yes, we may have a comfortable church and a respectable religion, but we will not have good news that can actually make a positive difference.
Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. And if there is anyone here today who does not know how Jesus is able to forgive sins, anyone who does not know how on the cross Jesus dealt with all the wrong you or I have ever thought or said or done, then I would urge you strongly to speak with me afterwards. The words Paul spoke in Pisidian Antioch two thousand years ago are the words the Lord is speaking to us today here in Devonport, and they demand a response.
We’ll look at the response of Paul’s audience in a moment but before we do so, I just want to pause a moment and try to untangle the next verse which at first glance seems to confuse the very clear challenge he has just issued: Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. What is Paul going on about here? And how does this relate to the good news of Jesus Christ?
Well, we need to remember that Paul here is speaking in a synagogue to people who were from a Jewish background. These people had been brought up to believe that the way to get right with God was by observing the commandments of Scripture and by living a good life. To use Paul’s technical language, they were trying to justify themselves by following the Law of Moses, that is, the Ten Commandments and all the detailed rules you find in books of the Bible like Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Now for us, we do not generally deal with people from a Jewish background day to day. But it’s amazing the number of people who think the way God will accept them is through the good works they perform. So long as they are kind to animals, help their neighbour, maybe give to charity, basically God’s OK with them.
And then I find there are people with the opposite problem, people who perhaps have lived messed-up broken lives, or simply think of themselves as losers and failures. They do not believe they can be good enough for God, and so they think God is not interested in them. They may want to have a faith, but they can’t see the point of a God who as far as they are concerned is only interested in those who are nice and respectable.
This is where Paul’s words in this verse suddenly become very real and relevant. Through Him (that is Jesus) everyone who believes is justified. And when Paul says everyone, he means everyone. You see, there is no-one bad enough that Jesus cannot deal with their sins. But equally there is no-one good enough that somehow they can avoid turning to Jesus in repentance. Because the shocking truth of the Christian faith is that we are all on the same level before God. Not one person is able to meet the demands of a totally pure and perfect God. The works we plead before him are in the words of the prophet Isaiah like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and it doesn’t matter whether we are career criminal, the CEO of a major charity or just an ordinary bloke in the street. The only thing we can do is get down on our knees and receive the offer of forgiveness from Jesus which is so marvellously and wonderfully free to all who believe.
That’s why after Paul has delivered his sermon, he urges those who accepted his message to – in the words of verse 43 – to continue in the grace of God. In other words, he is telling them not to carry on living their lives as if they could earn God’s favour, but to live day by day, hour by hour, recognising the utter and undeserved goodness and mercy of our Heavenly Father who loved the world so much He sent His Son to die for us upon a cross.
So Paul’s sermon was appropriate to its audience
Paul’s sermon concentrated on the cross
And thirdly, Paul’s sermon produced a range of reactions.
Now you have to remember when you read this sermon that only a few years previously Paul was someone who was utterly devoted to wiping out the Christian faith. He had been brought up in the strictest branch of the Jewish religion. He saw Jesus as a threat to his entire way of life, and he sought to eliminate anyone who confessed to following Him.
Even as Paul stood up in the synagogue in the town of Pisidian Antioch, he would have known that many would not accept his message. Just as indeed in our gospel reading Jesus would have known that many people in the towns he visited would refuse to repent and believe in the good news. Yet Paul did not change or alter his message.
Why? Because when we have an appropriate moment to share our faith, we are called to spread the good news folk need to hear, not the good news we think they want to hear. That may sound obvious, but it took me many years to fully appreciate this point. If we downplay or dilute the gospel, not only do we fail to honour Jesus, but we also do not have a message which can actually transform and change lives for good. News of a small God who only shows a little bit of love is never going to advance the kingdom, or save people from their sins.
And what I have learnt over the years is that actually the way people react is in the hands of the Lord, not mine. My part is to wait for the right moment to lovingly, graciously point to a loving and wonderful Saviour who died in my place for my sins. How folk react to that message – well, that’s up to the Lord, because, after all, He is the one in control.
So the next Sabbath as the crowds flock back to the synagogue for more, we read in verse 45 how the Jewish leaders were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Because, sadly, there will always be some who do not like to be told that they are in need of a Saviour, some who are too proud to admit their need for grace and forgiveness, some who for whatever reason hate the name of Jesus. But that does not mean we should be silent or react in kind to their abuse.
For the wonderful truth is, that when we share the good news in power of the Holy Spirit, there will be some who will respond. Moving on to verse 48: When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. Now I guess when Paul starting preaching in the synagogue he did not imagine it would be the non-Jewish folk who would end up believers. But that’s the way the Lord works. He often opens the heart of the most unexpected and the most unlikely of people, and we in turn need to be open to how He works.
And what was the longer-term result of this sermon in Pisidian Antioch? Very briefly, three things:
First of all, there is a ripple effect to the surrounding areas. Verse 49: The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.
Secondly, there develops an ongoing pattern of persecution. Verse 50: They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.
But notice verse 52: And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
So my prayer for you this week is that you also are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit as you spread the good news of Jesus Christ – whatever the response. For His name’s sake. Amen.