Wednesday 16 January 2019

Turning the world upside down (Acts 17:1-15)

A new year means a new start. A new change. Exercise more, eat more vegetables, that sort of thing. But some people are serious about their habits. Some people have seriously weird habits.

Take Mark Zuckerberg, who is big on new year’s resolutions. In 2009, he resolved to wear a tie every day. In 2011, he resolved to only eat animals he had personally killed.

Or Bill Gates. Bill Gates at business meetings likes to sit on a rocking chair. Apparently, when Bill is excited about an idea, he starts rocking that chair.

Steve Jobs ate carrots for weeks until his skin turned orange. Jack Ma eats instant noodles every day for the last 18 years.

Why do I mention this? Because everyone is looking for that secret recipe to success. Everyone wants that one thing to make them smarter, happier and fitter. But new year’s resolutions remind us just how hard it is and how long it takes to change even one thing. To change even one habit.

Why? Because changing habits means changing ourselves - our likes, our dislikes. It is one thing to change your circumstance, it is another to change your character - your wants and desires.

Three things we are looking at in today’s passage from Acts Chapter 17. Three habits. A good habit, a bad habit and a weird habit. Come with me to Acts Chapter 17.

A good habit

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
Acts 17:1-4

We begin with a good habit and the question is: What makes a good habit good? Going to church - a lot of you are expecting me to say that. And yes, verse 2 says Paul went into the synagogue but that’s not what I mean.

What makes a good habit good is consistency. You know it is good and you keep doing it because it is good. You don’t give up.

Verse 2: Paul goes to the synagogue and he keeps doing this for three Sabbath days. He keeps reasoning from the Scriptures, he keeps preaching from the Old Testament.

Verse 3: He tells them, “This Jesus is the Messiah.” Now the fact that it only says this once means Paul keeps saying this again and again. Jesus is the Christ. He doesn’t talk about one thing this week then another thing next week. It’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

And verse 4: Some of the Jews were persuaded, meaning, they became Christians. But notice, it wasn’t just the Jews who became Christians. God-fearing Greeks and prominent women, too (Cantonese: Tai tai). It’s like preaching in the Chinese Church and yes, some Chinese people become Christians but actually most of the new converts are English, BBC or Indian. The synagogue was Jewish but here were Greeks. The synagogue was primarily for men but here were women coming to Christ.

Meaning, what? Paul did the same thing wherever, whenever, to whoever. He told them about Jesus. He told them to give their lives to this Jesus who died for our sins, who rose for our justification.

Now verse 2 begins, “as was his custom,” and if you look through the entire bible, the entire New Testament, that phrase - “as was his custom” - occurs only two times - here in Acts and in Luke Chapter 4 verse 16, talking about Jesus.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read.
Luke 4:16

Both written by Luke. Both talking about the synagogue. Both talking about the bible. I don’t think that’s an accident. Paul is doing exactly what Jesus did in his ministry - explaining, proving and preaching the bible to people who knew their bibles.

If nothing else, Luke who wrote the gospel and Acts is saying to us: Don’t give up. Keep reading the bible especially as God’s people.

Why? Because even though we know something is good, if we keep doing it long enough, we will feel tempted to give up. You see, what makes a good habit good is consistency. You keep doing it. It’s faithfulness. You don’t give up.

A bad habit

Well, that’s a good habit. Next, we look at a bad one. Verse 5.

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.
Acts 17:5

What makes a bad habit bad? Forming a mob, rioting, trouble-making - according to verse 5.

But no, that’s not what I mean. A bad habit is something you know is bad but you keep doing it anyway. Your parents tell you it’s bad. Your friends tell you it’s bad. But you keep doing it anyway. Look down to verse 13.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.
Acts 17:13

They do it all over again in a different place, in a different church. But the same people cause the same trouble all over again. What do you call that? An addiction.

We think of addiction and we think of smoking and drinking and spending too much time on the Internet, that sort of thing. And because of that, we think: I’m not so bad. I’m not causing trouble like these Jews.

But, you see, verse 5 looks at the sin under the sin. Why were they causing all this trouble? Because, verse 5 tells us, they were jealous. The symptom was rioting, trouble-making but the disease was jealousy.

If you think about it, that’s crazy. Verse 5 doesn’t say they hated Paul or his teaching. Instead, they were jealous, meaning part of them loved it. Part of them said, “I wish I was like Paul. I wish that could preach like Paul and win lots of people to Jesus like Paul.” And that’s crazy.

Except it’s not. Sin is wanting something from God without God. Wanting to be God instead of God. And when I don’t get what I want, I get depressed, jealous, angry, anxious but that’s not sin in itself, those are just the symptoms. Those are just on the surface. The problem is in my heart. I want to be God instead of letting God be God.

The point is: I can try to change my habit but only God can change my heart.

The most serious sins in our lives, I’m guessing, you know you shouldn’t do it, you know it’s bad but you just can’t help it. You keep doing it again and again.

You can try to change your habit. Only God can change your heart.

A weird habit

So far we have seen a good habit - looking at Paul. A bad habit - looking at the Jews. Finally, we see a weird habit, this time looking at the crowd in verse 5.

They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go.
Acts 17:5-9

The crowds are just people who are there minding their business, doing their shopping, but what happens? Suddenly they become a mob, or as we would say today, suddenly things became viral.

Verse 5: They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. The word there is actually “demos” (people) where we get the word democracy. This is the will of the people.

Verse 6: The city officials get involved. “These men who have caused trouble all over the world (literally: turned the world upside down) have now come here.” Meaning: We don’t want this sort of people in Cambridge. We don’t need this kind of religion in Cambridge.

Verse 7: They appeal to nationalism. “They are defying Caesar’s decrees saying there is another king called Jesus.” If you love Caesar, you must hate Jesus. If you love democracy, you can’t love Jesus.

Verse 8: It works. “The crowds and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.” The enemy of my enemy is my friend. These guys are smart and their plan works.

Now, why is this weird? Because no one is really thinking about what they’re doing. Everyone else is doing it so it must be right. Everyone else likes this Instagram post so I must like it as well. It’s weird because it shouldn’t work except it does - here in Thessalonica, there in Berea, perhaps even here in Cambridge where a whole of smart people think a lot of stupid things.

If you are here and you are not a Christian, can I just ask: What are you? What do you actually think everything you’ve just heard the last 13 minutes, the last 13 years of your life. Whether you agree or disagree, how much is your opinion, your opinion. Not just something you watched on Youtube? What do words like truth, falsehood; right and wrong; heaven and hell mean to you?

Look with me to verse 11.

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Acts 17:11

Is it true? Whatever Paul said to these guys in Berea about Jesus dying on the cross and rising on the third day, they received it with eagerness, yes, but they also asked themselves, “Is it true?” And because of that, the bible calls them noble. I would just call them mature. They are thinking like grown-ups. They are thinking for themselves.

If nothing else, that is what I hope happens here every week at the Chinese Church, that as we keep up the habit of opening the Scriptures, as we are honest with one another about our sinfulness - none of us perfect, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God - that each one of us will simple walk out of the door each week asking this question, “Is it true?”

And that as we look for the answers as the Bereans did, examining the Scriptures, we might say with conviction together with Paul, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you really is the Christ.”

Changing the world

The title of this sermon is “Turning the world upside down” and I get that from verse 6 - “These men who have turned the whole world upside down have now come here,” an accusation made against Paul and his friends.

If you think about your life for a moment, what would it take for you to change the world, to make a huge impact on society? How could you live your life in such a way that you could turn the world upside down?

If you arrange the three habits we looked at not side-by-side but from top to bottom - the good, bad and weird - what you get is a pyramid. At the bottom is the crowd. Everyone is doing it, everyone is into it. In the middle would be the Jews - these few influential men pressing the right buttons triggering a riot, starting a movement. And right on top, you have Paul - one guy from from city to city telling people about Jesus. It’s a pyramid. Or think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

And if you asked that question: What do I need to do to change the world? Almost everyone thinks the way to do that is to be like the crowd. Go viral. Get as many people as possible excited about your cause. That’s success. That’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You get as many people as possible liking, tweeting and posting and you change the world.

Or some people would be like the Jews. Knowing the right buttons to press. Making alliances and compromises. The ends justify the means.

But very few would do what Paul did. One guy going from city to city, opening the bible, saying, “This Jesus is the Christ.” It’s so inefficient. You have reason with people, explain stuff again and again. If you asked anyone in Thessalonica and Berea what they thought of Paul, they’d say, “Loser.” Getting kicked out of the synagogue. Getting kicked out of the city. Again and again. Getting your friends into trouble. Again and again.

Yet in God’s wisdom, it’s people like Paul who change the world. Even his critics agree. After all, it was the Jews who describe Paul and his friends as turning the world upside down with their teaching and preaching.

And the question is: Which kind of person are you going to be?

If you are like Paul, someone who is in ministry, the lesson is clear: Don’t give up. Keep preaching Christ. Keep preaching the bible. It will be lonely. You will face opposition. Keep going and keep speaking out for Christ.

If you are Christian, the lesson is clear: Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. You look at people like Jason who was dragged out to the courts. The brothers who had to arrange for Paul to escape again and again. It is tempting to think, “I didn’t sign up for this.” But remember what Paul said of the Christ: The Messiah must suffer and must rise from the dead. We follow a Messiah who himself was rejected, who himself suffered, who himself told us to count the cost, pick up our cross and carry it daily.

You do that and maybe, just maybe, God will one day use you to turn this world upside down for Christ.

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