The following sermon was preached in the International Center Chapel this morning by the Rev. Dr. Rudolph Blank, retired missionary to Latin America. 

ACTS 13:38-49 – Sermon

Be prepared! That’s what we hear on the News during these days of extreme heat in Saint Louis. Drink a lot of water, wear light clothes, do not over exert yourself and stay out of the direct sun. When I first came to Missouri as a student in the summer of 1954 the temperature hit 115 in St. Louis and 117 in Clayton. I wasn’t prepared for that. It’s not a good idea to be unprepared. Our text from the book of Acts also calls us all and especially our new missionaries to be prepared. To be prepared for what?

Be prepared to find doors of opportunity for the proclamation of Christ and his cross. Such a door of opportunity opened for Paul when he arrived at Antioch in Pisidia and was invited to address a synagogue full of diaspora Jews and god-fearing gentiles. Antioch in Pisidia was the home town of Sergius Paulus, the roman proconsul whom Paul had befriended in Cyprus. It is quite possible that the apostle’s friendship with Sergius Paulus helped open some of those doors of opportunity among the governor’s friends and relatives in Antioch. Be prepared for the Spirit to open for you similar doors of opportunity to proclaim Christ wherever you find yourself.

If you read through Paul’s inaugural sermon in Antioch you will observe that it is peppered with one Old Testament quotation or allusion after another. These were Scriptures the Jews of Antioch had studied many times – Sabbath after Sabbath, year after year without fully understanding them. They searched these Scriptures, as Jesus said, because in them you think you have eternal life. In his Antioch sermon Paul shows his listeners how all of these Scriptures point forward to Jesus. They point to his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. Right there in the prophesies of the Old Testament Paul pointed his listeners to Christ crucified. Some time later the apostle writes: O Galatians, It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified”. Be prepared, like Paul, to use your windows of opportunity to point to Jesus.

The Spirit presented Paul with an opportunity to proclaim Christ not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. Among the hearers of Paul’s inaugural sermon we find present not only Jews but also many Gentiles: probably Greeks, Italians, Phrygians, Pisidians and other indigenous peoples. One of the most interesting and intriguing archaeological finds in Phrygia and Pisidia is the large number of “confessional inscriptions” or “Propitiation Tablets” that have been discovered in this part of Asia Minor. These tablets and inscriptions show us how the indigenous inhabitants of Asia Minor lived in dread of the curses that their gods would place upon the unjust. They feared God’s curse upon the unjust would bring sickness, loss of crops and animals and even death. To avoid the evil eye of God, the Phrygian landscape was littered with steles and tablets inscribed with confessions of sin. Accompanying each confession there is always a description of what the transgressor had done to appease the offended deity: “I have built public baths for the city of Antioch. I paid for a new town library. I have sold my grain at a loss to help feed the hungry”.

To the Gentiles who had come to Antioch’s synagogue seeking to escape the wrath of God, Paul points the Galatian god-fearers not to their monuments and inscriptions but to Christ and his atonement. It was upon Christ that the curse of the Law fell. It was upon the Lamb of God that the Law’s evil eye was turned. Some time later he writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. Since we gentiles are still prone to erect our modern versions of the ancient Phrygian expiation tablets, be prepared to use every opportunity the Spirit gives you to point to Jesus as the one who delivered us from the curse and the evil eye by taking them upon himself.

Our text from Acts 13 alerts us to something else new missionaries should be prepared for. Be prepared to suffer. Paul on his first missionary journey learned that bringing a new church into being is like giving birth, labor pains and all. Some time later Paul writes to his spiritual offspring in Antioch. “My little children, for you I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (4:19). My dear missionary candidates, be prepared to be taught through suffering and even persecution about what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Paul suffered not only to bring his converts out of paganism and to inoculate them against heresy, false teachers and the works of the flesh; Paul also had to deal with his thorn in the flesh. He writes in Galatians 4:13: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment (a weakness in the flesh) that I preached to you at first.” New Testament scholars have put together all kinds of theories to explain the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh: malaria, epilepsy or severe eye ailment. Luther believed that Paul’s thorn in the flesh consisted of the many persecutions, floggings and stoning he had to endure. At the end of Acts chapter 13, Luke tells us how Paul and Barnabas were run out of Antioch. So, my dear missionary candidates, be prepared for satanic opposition to the proclamation of the cross.

According to Luke, the primary opposition to Paul came from the leaders of the synagogue, the leading men of the city and devout women of high standing, what we would call the upper crust of the town. It has been suggested that the synagogue elders who instigated the persecution acted out of fear of what might happen if they lost control of the synagogue through the influx of a large group of outsiders, of people considered by society’s standards to be   uncultured, theologically immature and just not our kind of people. It is no secret that there are those in our own circles today who feel threatened by the influx in our churches of people who are different: Hispanics, Asians, Somalis, Bosnians and you name it. It is part of our sinful human nature to fear those who are different, and to impose upon them or to circumcise them with our own version of cultural acceptability. So be prepared, to be all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel even if it brings you suffering and rejection.

There is one more thing our text calls us to be prepared for. Be prepared for joy. Despite all the satanic opposition to the proclamation of Christ, a new congregation is born in Antioch. The birth of a new Christian community is always a miraculous birth, like that of Isaac whose very name means mirth. Be prepared for joy because Christ’s power in us is made perfect in weakness, suffering and persecution. Be prepared, because through suffering the Spirit is conforming us to the image of Christ. Be prepared for joy because God’s prophetic word is being fulfilled. The poor are being filled with good things while the rich synagogue patrons are sent empty away. Even though the elder brothers might grumble, the Father’s prodigals are staring to come home. And there is more joy in heaven for one sinner that repents than for all those who feel they have no need for repentance. So be prepared to rejoice with angels.  Be prepared to rejoice with all those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Be prepared to rejoice and praise the Father, the Lamb and the Spirit together with the multitudes without number from every nation, tribe, people and language, gathered around the throne of our God, to whom be glory, now and forever. Amen.