Turning A City Upside Down
God’s in the business of transforming lives, and Kingdom transformation is contagious.
Ephesus = Ephesians = no! f-esus. so whenever I say e-fesus, you say “no, f-esus”
Peter painted a great picture of Ephesus for us last week: one of the great cities of the Roman empire, perhaps as many as three hundred thousand people; a city with wide, busy streets, a beautiful library, a huge open-air theatre - and most importantly a city with a gigantic temple to the goddess Artemis. It was a population centre, a financial centre, a religious centre, an occult centre. A magnet for the surrounding province and beyond.
Peter helped us explore how Paul, one of Jesus’ first followers, a small and seemingly insignificant individual, could hope to make a difference in such a great city. How he pursued his mission to share the hope he had found in Jesus there: through the power of words - speaking, arguing, discussing; these are the actions attributed to Paul. But it’s not just any words, any message he brings, it is the word of the Lord: a message about The Way of Jesus; a message about the Kingdom of God.
And this message confronted the powers-that-be in that city. Last week, we heard about extraordinary miracles, about show-downs with evil powers, about curse-spells burned. We were challenged to consider what we might have to leave behind as we follow Jesus.
Peter reminded us of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, teaching us how the Kingdom of God - the sphere within which He is honoured as king - starts so small - think of Paul, just one individual - yet, like a seed, it has within it the potential to grow and multiply into something huge. The message of Jesus grows and multiplies so in the end the entire region has heard it.
This week I want us to focus on another side of how the Kingdom advances, one that the next event we read of in Ephesus brings to the fore. So let’s read together the next section of our story, telling us of another major event in that city. And Sam’s going to read for us this morning.
Why not come with me to Acts chapter 19 and we’ll start reading at verse 23. Page 1116 - chapter 19, big 19, verse 23, tiny 23. Page 1116. Sam.
About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.
Who knows the story of the boy who cried wolf? I remember Mrs McAndrews, headmistress at my primary school - very scary lady indeed - telling it to us in an assembly. It’s a famous story and an ancient one - purportedly one of Aesop’s fables, so around six hundred years before Jesus. Here’s a poetic re-telling from the 1900s:
A Shepherd-boy beside a stream “The Wolf, the Wolf,” was wont to scream, And when the Villagers appeared, He'd laugh and call them silly-eared. A Wolf at last came down the steep— “The Wolf, the Wolf—my legs, my sheep!” The creature had a jolly feast, Quite undisturbed, on boy and beast. ~ William Ellery Leonard
Plenty of people around us today we might accuse of “crying wolf” like this, raising the alarm again and again over things that really aren’t that alarming - often over nothing at all. Are these metalworkers we began with today the same: just “crying wolf”? “This new guy in town, Paul, he’s going to destroy everything” - our business, our good name, our temple’s renown, our goddesses’ honour. “the sky is falling.”
One guy? with a strange message from another land? A short, wordy, often confusing guy? Really? These are big things they are suggesting he might take down in verse 27: a major line of business for the city - think Finance in Edinburgh; a key civic building. Well, the key civic building - the temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the world, remember - could Paul really change that? The dominant cult of the city - I don’t know what you’d think of as the “dominant cult” of Edinburgh? What’s the most common worldview, the most widely held belief? Could one person possibly change that? Surely these metalworkers are just crying wolf?
But no - as it turns out, they are better prophets than probably even they believed - because every element they fret about and feed to the mob they are whipping up will actually come to pass. The trade would lose its good name - anyone heard people speaking approvingly of the metalworkers of Ephesus and their silver shrines? What do we think today of those who peddle religious trinkets, preying on tourists and pilgrims? The temple would be discredited - totally destroyed, in fact. Like Peter showed us last week, there’s just a pillar in swamp today - and it’s not even a pillar from that temple! Artemis would be robbed of her divine majesty. Do you know where Artemis-worship sits in the league-table of world religions today? Me neither but I bet it’s behind Jedi, even.
The metalworkers were right. And that official who quelled the riot, the city clerk? He was quite wrong. “Doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image which fell from heaven?” Well, no. Ask me three weeks ago and I wouldn’t have known anything about Artemis, really, and I wouldn’t have labelled Ephesus as a great religious centre at all.
Shout all you want, people - for two hours in unison if you must - but change is coming anyway. Even a riot won’t stop this. Resistance is futile, as they say.
A riot can’t stop what’s happening in this city. A mob won’t change things. So what will? What does?
I want us to think about what could change a city? What could turn this great city - the renowned cult of Artemis, the world-wonder temple, the powerful metalworker’s business - upside down? What could bring down a worldview so dominant it drove everything and everyone in the city?
If you wanted to change a city, a whole city - if you wanted to change our city what would you try?
What about a good old protest? Does Paul put together an army of disciples waving placards with slogans like “Gods aren’t made of gold” and “Artemis is artificial”? Or if he’s more modern, just glue himself to the temple door, perhaps? That’s how many people go about trying to change things today. A big, obstructive protest followed by lots of hand-wringing among the powers that be: “Something must be done!” and hey presto, there’s a new law which begins to force a change on the city. But it’s the metalworkers who are protesting, not Paul.
So maybe it’s a showdown at the temple at dawn? It wouldn’t be the first time in the Bible - think of Moses taking on the Egyptian magicians, or Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal. Lay down an ultimatum to the cult of artemis: prayers at dawn. But that’s not when changes a city here - Paul doesn’t even go head-to-head with his opponents when they riot - and from verse 37 it seems there’s not even a blasphemy charge to be made against the disciples. So it’s not a showdown.
So what changes a city? This metalworker Demetrius has grasped a part of it when he tells us what gets his goat, how he sees the problem: Acts 19:26
Acts 19:26 (NIV)
this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.
Paul’s changed the minds of a bunch of people - large number of people in Ephesus and even the wider province. He’s convinced them that gods we make are no gods at all. That the metalworker’s trade is in empty statues, not powerful things.
But it’s not simply information, an argument, an idea which has changed the city. Demetrius’ charge against Paul is truth - but not the whole truth. Like we saw last week, what’s changed this city is the powerful word of the Lord, or the message of the Lord. The message that Paul has carried here with him, has planted here before, and now is back sowing and cultivating and nurturing. Acts 19:20
In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
And this message isn’t just informative. It’s transformative.
What I mean by that is it’s not just information that we add to our mental databanks which changes our actions. “Oh, ok, now I know that, things sum up differently so I’ll act differently”. As if we humans are just rational-computer-beings, running a program. Logical processing units. Like learning “it hurts when I stand on a rake” then trying to avoid standing on rakes.
That’s what Demetrius is thinking: people are being fed new information “gods made by human hands are no gods at all” and then they just process that, and respond by stopping buying his goods, his gods.
But this message is bigger: Paul’s message is that Messiah, the long-promised deliverer, is God himself. He entered into the world he created as Jesus, and he’s building his Kingdom within it.
And this is a kingdom not just built on information but on transformation. God sends his own Spirit into our hearts as the agent of this transformation - like we were talking about two weeks ago when we met those disciples who had not even heard there was a Holy Spirit as Paul first arrived in Ephesus.
That’s how you change a city: by planting God’s Kingdom within it - a Kingdom built on transformation.
Remember Peter reminded us of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed last week? a tiny seed to a huge tree? Well Jesus tells another parable right after that, alongside that. Matthew 13:33
Matthew 13:33 (NIV)
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
That’s a compact parable but it teaches us something so important about the Kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God.
Our modern translation is not being super-helpful here - there’s something which would have been totally obvious to Jesus’ original audience but it’s a little harder for us to see. In those days you didn’t get yeast in a sachet as a powder like we do today to mix into the flour. In those days they used “leaven” - that is, dough which already had yeast alive and active in it. Often dough left over from the previous day’s bread. You heard of a sourdough starter? That’s what Jesus is talking about here: some dough that’s already active.
When you mix that leaven - that already-activated chunk - into a huge bowl of new dough - thirty kilos of flour is a lot of big bags of flour so I hope that woman has a really big bowl and some strong arms! When you mix that leaven in it begins to transform the dough around it - to transform it into more leaven. Which is contact with more dough. Which gets transformed into more leaven - in contact with more dough. That’s how it works through all of those thirty kilos.
The Kingdom of heaven is like that, says Jesus. It’s a Kingdom that grows by transforming people. Who themselves transform other people. Who themselves transform still other people. The kingdom is infectious. That’s how it transforms cities. That’s how it transforms cultures. That’s how it turns Ephesus upside down.
Christianity transforms cultures because Christianity transforms people. And this is not just true in ancient times. Christianity transformed Scottish culture in the middle ages: we had one of the leading education systems in the world - so every child could read the Bible for themselves. Our systems for the care and welfare of the poor flowed out of a nation hearing the call of Christ to love our neighbour.
In fact, transformational Christianity radically reshaped culture in much of the Western world, giving us values, defaults, assumptions that are radically different from those which had gone before - and those which still surround us today.
Ideas which seem obvious in our culture like the inherent and equal value of humans would have been scoffed at by the most learned ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle. There are those who rule and those who should be ruled, they thought: an obvious hierarchy of value with free men at the top. India’s three-millennia old caste system had an equally clear, if different, value hierarchy — one which still has significant impact with 1 in 5 in Northern India claiming to have experienced caste-based discrimination in the last year.
And it’s not just equality - it’s compassion, consent, the list goes on. Interested to learn more? Check out this book, the Air We Breathe from Glen Scrivener. But I’m getting a bit off topic. My point here is that Christianity transforms cultures because Christianity transforms people. That’s how Ephesus was turned upside down.
As we come to a close, let me ask the question we try and ask every week here at Hope City: So what? What does this mean for me and you, here and now, in our ordinary everyday lives? I have two things for us today:
First, God’s still in the business of transforming lives. If you don’t know this for yourself yet, I’m so glad you’re here this morning. If you came with someone who’d call themselves a Christian, ask them whether this is true, ask them how they have been transformed by God, what difference it’s made to their life. Watch them and see if that’s real - is there really anything different about them? Do they see things differently? Do they have hope? Do they have a reason for that hope?
If you didn’t come with a friend, why not just take your brave pills and ask whoever’s sitting next to you - a great way to start a conversation?
If there wasn’t such a power, how could you explain the impact Christianity had on the ancient world, or has on our world today? And if there really is this transforming power, don’t you want to experience it for yourself? Isn’t exploring whether this is real worth at least a little of your time, a little awkwardness, an open conversation?
And if you do know this for yourself, can I encourage you today to think through how you will talk about it more. You are part of God’s story, part of his testimony to the world. The transformations he’s worked out in your life are something you should share - we are not who we used to be!
Let’s practice talking about that - not bragging about how nice we are, but how, even though we’re still not that nice, we’re not what we were - bragging about how much God has done in us. Ways we changed. Ways we’ve grown.
God’s still in the business of transforming lives.
Second, I want us to see and believe that this Kingdom transformation is still contagious. Like the leaven in the dough. This is why as a church we are talking all the time about how each of us has a part to play in the mission of Jesus in this city: because we are that leaven, we are the contagious kingdom agents in our city. Our call is to live alongside - live in the midst of a world which doesn’t know or care, to live in contact so this transforming Kingdom might spread through us.
And our hope is that this Kingdom won’t end with us, that we won’t always be on the frontier, be it’s border - but that this transforming Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, will continue to grow through us.
If this Kingdom had the potency and the power to transform even that great city of Ephesus then it has the power and the potency to transform this great city of Edinburgh. A city dominated by other gods, ruled by other worldviews, profited from by other groups, a city that it might seem impossible to ever change.
But God can transform this city because God’s still in the business of transforming lives, and Kingdom transformation is still contagious. Do you believe that, that God’s transformation work in you is contagious? And not just in the covid-sense?
A moment to reflect - what’s God saying to you this morning? And then we’ll pray.
“fill me with your heart / and lead me in your love to those around me”
lyrics from the song we’re about to sing. Contagious transformation. Colin.