Following the Footsteps of Paul: Ephesus

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Acts 19:23-41

I have to say that our trip to Turkey this summer was one of the more transformative trips I have taken and for many, many reasons. Too many to share here…especially on a communion Sunday!

But one of the highlights was certainly going to Ephesus… a key city in the story of our faith. I was in awe to be in the very place where Paul had lived and seeing many of the same things that Paul saw… though they stood in ruins… and it is a historical site… still… I could stand where Paul stood… look at the mountains Paul saw… What he didn’t see were the hat sales before you entered Ephesus… or the souvenir sales outside the entrance… He didn’t have to pay to get into Ephesus!

Ephesus during Paul’s time was quite a city. He spent three years there and once you get to know Ephesus… you know why. It was an exciting place… Perhaps around 200,000 or more people living there. It was a cultural, intellectual, athletic, business, and religious center. Someone described it as Harvard, Hollywood and New York all rolled up into one.

They had stadiums… the agora— a place for shops and business… they had a brothel… and they were a very religious community… not Christian… but religious.

They didn’t have Christian gift shops where you could buy crosses and mugs with scripture verses or bookmarks… but there were gift shops devoted to the goddess Artemis (daughter of Zeus) … Silver smiths made statues of her—large and small—ready for any budget… People bought them for their homes and businesses. It was cosmopolitan.

I began to think of it as a combination of the intellectual power of Carolina, State and Duke… with the financial power of Charlotte… the sports hysteria of both places as well as the cultural arts of both places. In other words… we would be very much at home in Ephesus… some might say we are living in Ephesus right now.

One of the special moments in the visit was standing in the large amphitheatre in Ephesus. It is larger than I imagined. To give you a sense… the RBC center holds about 20,000 people. This theatre holds 25,000.

I stood on the stage and my friend Todd – a photographer told me to strike a pose like Paul. (Not sure what that is like)… I pointed to the heavens and said Praise the Lord. At that moment a group of Korean tourists cheered !

Paul never experienced that! No, read the text… when Paul walked around town… it was not always a warm reception… when people started listening to Paul’s message…a riot broke out… his companions and friends Gaius and Aristarchus were dragged to the theatre… where people debated with one another… But this looked more like a lynch mob than a debate. Paul wanted to go… but his friends would not let him… it was too dangerous.

As they were taken to the stage, they looked up into the crowd and saw angry faces… threatening gestures and two hours of chanting louder and louder, “Great is Ephesian Artemis! Great is Ephesian Artemis!”

“And Artemis was indeed great. She was the most powerful divinity in the place… and had been for a long time. She was the goddess of the moon, of the hunt and of fertility and became associated with the fertility of the ground… therefore a good harvest… and when Artemis was on your side… you would be guaranteed financial prosperity.” [1]

For that reason Tim Keller calls Artemis the goddess of business… They loved Artemis so much, they built a temple to her which (they say) was five to seven times bigger than the Pantheon… one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. So, you can imagine religious pilgrims from all over the world flocked to see her temple. It was impressive.

An interesting thing to me is that if Tim Keller is right… and Artemis is the god of business… then it seems to me Artemis is alive and well. We have built temples to her just as we have to our other gods. Go in any major city and you will see a temple to Artemis. It is called the Wells Fargo Tower… or PNC Plaza … or Bank of America Tower… or Trump tower. Follow the money and look at the buildings and you are likely to find an idol we worship. Think of the money spent on stadiums and coliseums and tell me that our culture does not worship ESPN—sports and entertainment?

We should not be surprised… all cultures are based on idols. Calvin said human beings are idol factories.

Someone put it this way, “Every individual life and every community and every culture that’s not based on the glory and the grace of God is going to be based on some created thing in God’s place. Everyone and every community and every culture looks to something to save it, something to rescue it. It puts its hope, it puts it s meaning, in something.” [2]

That something is an idol. Idols, Paul preached, are something humans make. Again, Tim Keller says, “An idol is anything in your life that is so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it. Idolatry is anything you look at, and in your heart of hearts you say, ‘If I have that, then my life has value, then my life has meaning. If I would lose that, I don’t know how I would live.’An idol can be anything. An idol can be family and children. It could be career or making money. It can be achievement or critical acclaim. It can be social standing or a romantic relationship. It can be your (intelligence) competence and skill. It can be physical beauty, either in yourself or your partner. (It can be sexuality.) It can be some political or social cause. It could be your moral record. (It could be sports or athletics- and a team you follow) it can be your religious activity…”[3](even your church, or your favorite ministry in the church)

The way you know you are worshipping an idol is this: you cannot live without an idol and you will give your heart and soul and time and money to the idol.

Want to check up on our idol worship? Want to identify our own personal idols?… it is rather simple… take a look at your bank statement and your calendar. Those reveal most clearly what matters most to us. Take a look at the books you are buying, the blogs you are reading, the TV shows you are watching… they will give you a hint.

Let me be clear… we all have idols… I have mine as well as you. No one escapes their powerful pull or temptation.

The challenge for the Christian is to put those idols in their place. We don’t want to say that money, careers, family, children, sports and the things we love are not important or enjoyable. They are and can be wonderful gifts of God to us.

But you want to put them in their place so that they do not become our main values… our main identities… they are not our salvation… So that when we look at them we can say, “It’s only money”… “It’s just a game”… “It’s only a job”… You don’t want those gods controlling your life. And sometimes they do… and let’s not fool ourselves… this is very, very hard.

It was very hard for a family at a Presbyterian church in the Triangle. (I’m changing names to respect those who are in the story). At this large Presbyterian church, my friend Tim was telling me about a family who had a youth completing confirmation. This is a very faithful and loving family. Committed to the church.

They had the dinner on Friday night with the elders for the confirmation exam… the youth passed… then Shannon , the associate for Youth got a call on Saturday night at 11pm from the mother. She said, “Shannon, we have a problem… Our son’s soccer team made the tournament and is scheduled to play at 10:30am tomorrow. We have wrestled with whether to go to the game or come to confirmation Sunday.” Shannon asked the mother this question. “How many soccer games will your child play in their lives?’ Hundreds… “How many confirmation Sundays will they have?” One.

The family chose the soccer. The mother called Tim on Monday and to her credit, did not call to complain about Shannon for making her feel guilty. But to say to her pastor and friend, Tim… this was so hard… it was a hard choice… (They were looking for absolution.)Tim listened and said, “I know… but I think it was the wrong choice.” (I want to give this family credit—they didn’t leave the church… )

Over the years I have wondered what if…(and I know this will never happen) but what if everyone who says they are Christian simply refused to play or practice soccer or basketball or any other sport or activity on Sunday mornings (like the story in Chariots of Fire)…

What would happen? Wouldn’t those organizations have to adjust? Would that not be a powerful statement and witness? Oh, I know it would be hard. People would get mad. You’d have a fight with your kids… other parents…They’d call you crazy. Maybe even cause a riot!

Idols are powerful folks and they are all around us… And people will resist us… Demetrius stirred up a riot because Paul’s preaching threatened his business the way of life of the silversmiths. He almost caused a riot until some wise town leaders stepped in.

So, how do you keep these gifts – these humanly made gifts in their place so that they do not become an idol—the source of our salvation and center of our lives. How do we learn to enjoy these gifts without worshipping them?

How do you do that?

With the gospel. The gospel reminds us that those idols will always let us down… they never bring what we think they will bring. And asking the Lord to bless our idols will not change that.

As Paul says, they are made by humans… Only God can bring your meaning and hope and love that we so seek at the deepest core of our beings. No other person or ideology or institution or thing can do that. Only God…

In Ephesus… those who became Christians discovered that gospel truth and it changed them… it changed the way they lived…their values… their lifestyle…the choices they made. Even today you will find some signs of those Christians. There are symbols engraved in marble… a cross… a fish… a Christian wheel…( a large circle which preceded the fish symbol as the secret sign to followers of Christ… it contains the same letters for Christ as the fish symbol.)

Those Christians gathered… no longer at a temple to Artemis… but around the preaching of Paul and the word of the Lord… to remember who they were and whose they were. They did not belong to Artemis, they belonged to the Lord.

It’s the same thing we do each week, do we not? We gather here – as other Christians do every week—to put a check on our idolatry…to put those back gods in their place when we let them get out of hand… to worship the living God… and once a month to gather around a table like this… to remember the one who is our Lord and our Savior… who will be there for us long after the other smaller gods we make have failed us…

So come to the table again… listen to the one who says… “I AM the bread of life, those who come to me will never be hungry… those who believe in me will never thirst…”

So come, every one…hear Jesus say to you… “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed are those who find their refuge (hope and salvation) in God”

Amen.



[1]Adapted from Tom Write commentary on this passage.

[2]Tim Keller presentation on Gospel Preaching That Radically Changes Lives

[3]Adapted from Tim Keller comments

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