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Pastor Mark Nieting
Study of Acts, part 12
Acts 20: 13-38

Anyone who has turned on the radio or television has gotten an earful of the latest controversy in our dear nation: whether or not a mosque and Islamic center should be built near the World Trade Center site in New York. Some focus their discussion around calls for religious freedom and tolerance. After all, America is built on constitutional freedoms and we cherish them! Others are deeply offended by it, especially those who lost loved ones on September 11. They remember who attacked our country back then and see this as an attempt to solidify the event on our soil, like the mosque that was built on the very site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem after it was conquered by Muslim armies.

However this turns out, and time will tell, another place of worship at Ground Zero certainly hasn’t garnered nearly as much media attention. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, the only church actually destroyed in the attack on 9/11, is having all sorts of problems being allowed to rebuild, on the same site it has occupied for decades! The 70 Christian families who worshiped there have to travel all the way to Brooklyn for their services, because there are no other Orthodox congregations on Manhattan… and their story has barely been noticed.

Does it seem to you that in the eyes of the media and the elite in America, Christianity isn’t “in” anymore? Does it seem that Christianity is being subtly, or even actively, pushed towards the sidelines of our culture? Examples are legion: Wednesday evenings used to be ‘off limits’ for athletic practices because it was “church night.” Not so anymore! Sunday mornings used to be “church time;” now soccer leagues compete with worship services in almost every community. Businesses that are closed on Sundays, like “Chic-Filet,” are few and far between. Put a Christmas display anywhere near public property and watch out!

No matter what WE might think of all this, St. Paul would not have been surprised in the least. After all, he lived in a time when Christians were definitely in the minority and, depending on the Emperor, were actively persecuted for their faith: something he had done to Christians when he was a rabid young Rabbi.

Our focus today is Acts 20, the end of Paul’s 3rd missionary journey, which took place from 53 to 57 AD. He had spent 3 years in Ephesus. Then he went to Greece, where he taught in a number of cities. While he was there, he collected offerings for the Christians back in Jerusalem, who were suffering because of a severe draught. We can relate to this: we have our own food pantry, JCOC, and quite a number of us support Food for the Poor. These Christians were obviously very moved by the plight of their brothers and sisters back in Israel and gave generously. Even though Paul wanted to go to Rome, and eventually to Spain, he committed himself to take the offerings back to Jerusalem personally.
On the way he sailed through the Greek isles down to the city of Miletus, about 30 miles from Ephesus. From there he sent a messenger to the elders of the church in Ephesus and asked them to meet him in Miletus. They joined Paul in Ephesus, not knowing exactly what he would say to them! He said “Goodbye.”

Most of us don’t like saying goodbye to a loved one, do we? This congregation has said goodbye to a lot of dearly beloved members over the years and it’s never easy. Our families go through farewells quite frequently, some of you on a fairly regular basis. We have a lot of folks here at Hope whose first words to me are usually something like this: “We’re going to be here for 2 years.” They KNOW that when their time in this job runs it’s course, they will be moving on. Moving is a regular part of work today and even though it isn’t easy, we accept it.

The same thing comes with being deployed. Sometimes you know far in advance when it’s going to happen and sometimes, not so. That was the case of Chaplain Berteau as he and Janelle were taking Ben to Concordia in St. Paul. His commander called his cell phone and within one 10 minute phone conversation his shore billet was changed to a ship and deploying him 3 days later! They didn’t even give him time to drive home! When the Navy says “go,” what are you going to do? You are compelled to go by a force greater than yourself.

Look with me at Acts 20, beginning in verse 22. It’s Paul, talking to his beloved friends from Ephesus who had journeyed 30 miles to hear what he had to say. Read 22 with me: “And now compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.” Let’s stop there for a moment.

Did you catch Paul’s motivation? COMPELLED by the Spirit! Compelled!

Let’s unpack that word compelled just a bit. The Greek is dedemenos, the perfect past participle meaning “to be BOUND UP” or “TIED UP.” It wasn’t that Paul merely “felt like” he should go to Jerusalem or simply “wanted to.” The Spirit that filled Paul was a far greater force than Paul’s human desires or his will or his interests. He was COMPELLED by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit was, is, and always will be, far more compelling than Paul, or me…..or you.

What was it that the Holy Spirit had “bound Paul up to do?” He speaks it clearly in the last half of verse 24: “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

The Holy Spirit had shown Paul the “big picture.” Paul knew, and I do think God had revealed this to him, that when he went back to Jerusalem that the Jewish leaders….his former Pharisaical Friends…..would find a way to get him arrested. He saw way past all that.

He knew that once he was arrested he would make sure that he was able to tell the story of Jesus to the soldiers and their officers (Acts 22), to the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 23), to Felix the Governor and his court (Acts 24), to Festus, the next Governor (Acts 25) and then to King Agrippa and his wife Bernice (Acts 26). He knew that as a Roman citizen he could appeal his case to the “most supreme of all courts,” to the Caesar in Rome…..and by doing this, the story of Jesus would be told in the very center of the Roman empire!

THAT was the race that Paul was running. That was Paul’s goal. That was what he was compelled to do. Was it going to be easy? No! Would it be dangerous? Certainly! Did Paul trust that this was God’s plan? Absolutely. Flip ahead in Acts to chapter 27, verse 23 and following. Paul is on a ship caught in a fierce nor’easter that went on for days. The crew had given themselves up for dead. Listen to Paul’s words as he encouraged the very crew and soldiers who were taking him to Rome: Last night an angel of the God whose I am (notice….to whom I am BOUND)…and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “DO not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you. So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen, just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

Paul’s eyes were fixed on the big picture: sharing Jesus with no one less than the Emperor Caeser in Rome. That part of the Great Commission drove him. It compelled him. He knew Jesus had died for HIS sins: Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and told him just that! He knew that if Jesus loved him enough to forgive HIS sins, Jesus loved the Emperor the same way. Paul wasn’t going to stop proclaiming Christ until he took his last breath and crossed the finish line between this life and life in heaven.

Question: when I say “St. Paul,” what is it that first comes to your mind? I bet it wasn’t “sail-maker” or “former rabbi” or “good writer.” It’s “SERVANT of JESUS CHRIST” or something like it that leaps into our minds when we hear his name. Paul was NEVER ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter what it cost him, and it cost him dearly; it cost him often and ultimately it both COST him his life in this world and SAVED him for eternal life in heaven forever!

What about us? What about me? IF the first thing you think of when my name is mentioned is “rabid railroad nut,” then there is something wrong…..not with you, but with me! Through my baptism, I have been “bound up” with Jesus Christ in His death, something that compels me to proclaim Him as my Savior and yours. That’s the big picture of my life. All the rest of the things in my life are really just details, most of which fall off one way or another as I run the race. NOTHING else crosses the finish line with me…..only my faith in Christ Jesus.

Paul cared deeply about the dear people of Ephesus. He knew that after he left them, false teachers would come in and lead some of them away from Jesus. That’s why God puts “shepherds” over each group of His sheep!

Look at 20: 28: That’s where he urged them….. read with me….. ”Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (stop here)

We are “on our guard.” As LCMS Christians we take God’s Word and the teaching of it very seriously because we, like St. Paul, know just what can happen. But we also take Christ’s Great Commission seriously. It compels us to Proclaim the Name of Jesus Christ first, last, and always, as the ONLY name under heaven, given among men, by which we can be saved. We are compelled to LIFT HIGH the CROSS of Jesus Christ, to rally around it, and to let all men know that we are PEOPLE OF THE CROSS and PEOPLE of the CROWN of eternal life.

Amen!

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