Acts 13: 5After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.’ 16So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:
26 ‘My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us* the message of this salvation has been sent. 27Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. 28Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed.29When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30But God raised him from the dead; 31and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. 32And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors 33he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.”
34As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“I will give you the holy promises made to David.”
35Therefore he has also said in another psalm,
“You will not let your Holy One experience corruption.”
36For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died,* was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption; 37but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption.38Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; 39by this Jesus* everyone who believes is set free from all those sins* from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40Beware, therefore, that what the prophets said does not happen to you:
41 “Look, you scoffers!
Be amazed and perish,
for in your days I am doing a work,
a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.” ’
42 As Paul and Barnabas* were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath.
Paul is in Antioch and preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. His message is linked to the scripture readings assigned for the day from the Torah. He summarizes concisely biblical history and leads the congregants to know and believe that Jesus Christ was the promised messiah, attested to by the end of today’s passage:
3When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
So powerful. And yet the sermon itself reads rather dryly and didactically – this happened, then this, then this and so on. But this is just how it reads, not how it was delivered or heard. It makes a case for something and it persuades, which is precisely what a ‘word’ or an exhortation is supposed to do. Persuasive preaching is an art form that delivers conversion, transformation, a change of heart, when grounded in the text and informed by personal experience.
Preaching launched from the day’s appointed readings – from the Lectionary – as Paul did in this house of worship on the Sabbath – is holy spirit inspired – given breath by the Holy Spirit. Though the ultimate message was always the same, a sermon to the Gentiles and in town squares was much different than those he delivered in the synagogues.
Acts 17: 1When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbaths he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he declared.
Outside of the house of worship, the proclamation was determined by Paul, grounded first in his own personal experience and informed by his personal knowledge of the scriptures. Paul decided upon a theme, what we might think of today as a ‘sermon series’ to persuade the hearers of the good news of Jesus Christ. It not only read differently, it looked different, too. No Torah, no pulpit. Men, women, children.
I imagine these sermons packaged in a way politicians of yesterday packaged speeches delivered on whistle-stop tours. As the politician made their way across the country to address the undecided voter, they delivered sound bites – tightly crafted messages accompanied by bells and whistles to try to persuade folks to vote for them.
Paul traveled cross the country and had his testimony packaged up for delivery to the Gentiles – the undecided voter, if you will. These sermons were different than the ones in synagogue.
Both ways bore fruit for the kingdom. People were converted and persuaded, came to Jesus Christ, gathered as the body of Christ.
On the Lord’s Day and at worship, I am much more receptive to preaching responding to the scriptures appointed for the day than I am to sermons boxed up into some biblical theme according to the whim of the preacher. Those ‘messages’ are too much focused on the preacher – you’ll often find them spotlighted on a stage! – thus putting too much emphasis on personality and individuality and me, me, me. That message – personal salvation – was the one Paul delivered in the streets, to the gentiles. But in the synagogue? On the Sabbath? It wouldn’t have played well, I think is my point.
I think the difference is in how I understand worship and preaching on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s Day. The body of Christ gathers on Sunday to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, God. The gathered time is really not about me – about the individual – but about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
And the sermon, as part of that gathering, is a response to the scriptures the people hear during the worship – scriptures read from every season of the story of God’s people – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. A response, not a carefully crafted campaign speech.
I am grateful to be part of a worship community that is open week after week to hearing what the Spirit is saying to God’s people through his word.