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November 15, 2015

Sermon Acts 13:6-8 . . .“Bad Boys of the Bible:  Elymas, the Sorcerer”

“Bad Boys of the Bible:  Elymas, the Sorcerer”

Acts 13:6-8

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Jerry Gondolfo doesn’t flinch when a busload of eighth-grade girls begins to shriek at the front desk.  As the owner of New Orleans’ Historic Voodoo Museum, he just assumes that one of his employees, a voodoo priest by the name of John T. Martin, is carrying his albino python around his neck.  Screams are par for the course.

Deeper into the museum, amidst a musty jumble of wooden masks, alligator heads, horse jaw rattles, human skulls, and “govi” jars for storing souls, it’s uncomfortably warm.  They like to keep it that way for the sake of their coldblooded friend.  After all, snakes are considered sacred voodoo spirits and this particular one, named Jolie Vert, (or “Pretty Green,”) also furnishes little bags of scales that sell for a dollar in the gift shop, alongside dried chicken feet and blank-faced dolls made of Spanish moss.

Though today he’s a practicing Catholic, Gandolfo comes from a long line of Creoles, formerly of Haiti, and grew up in a place where neighbors swept red brick dust across their doorsteps each morning to ward off hexes, and where you could buy love potions in most any drugstore.

Today, as many as eighty million people around the world practice voodoo, in places as diverse as the Bahamas, Miami, New York, New Orleans, and Montreal.  It’s the most popular religion in Haiti.

Page through the Bible, and you can’t help but find stories of those who practiced magic and sorcery.  In the book of Exodus, for example, Pharaoh’s wise men, magicians and sorcerers turned their staffs into snakes just like Aaron did.  In the book of I Samuel, King Saul consulted the witch of Endor to conjure up a prophet’s spirit.  In Acts chapter 8, a magician named Simon amazed the people of Samaria.  And in Acts 19, when Paul began to preach in Ephesus, the magicians who lived there brought their books and burned them in the sight of all, a sum, Luke wrote, worth fifty thousand pieces of silver.

Now here, in Acts chapter 13, we meet one more—a shaman, a wizard, a witch doctor, a magician, the all-wise, the all-great, the all-powerful, sorcerer named Elymas.

The chapter opens as the Spirit sends Paul and Barnabas on their very first missionary journey, to a place called Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now Cyprus was beautiful place to be.  It was wealthy because of its rich soil and its deep copper mines.  And its climate was perfect.  You could grow almost anything there.  Locals even had a nickname for it.  They called “Makaria.”  “Happy Island.”  It’s the word for “blessed” in the Beatitudes.  It was like the Hawaii of the Mediterranean Sea.

But Cyprus also had a dark side.  Locals believed that there, hundreds of years before, near the city of Paphos, the goddess Aphrodite was born, the goddess of love and beauty.  After all, her name meant—“up from the foam of the sea.”  

And since Cyprus was the home of Aphrodite, you can just imagine what happened there.  Those who worshipped her worshipped in the wildest, most seductive way possible.  Archaeologists tell us that every woman of Cyprus was expected to serve, at least once in her life, as a prostitute at the temple steps.  Cyprus was a place full of gods, of goddesses, and of evil spirits.  And it was a place ripe for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that’s why the Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas there.

And just as soon as they landed on the eastern edge of the island at Salamis, they made their way across to the west, to Paphos, to the seat of the Roman government, to preach the gospel there.

And when they arrived, whom should they meet, but a magician, a sorcerer, a Jewish false prophet, named “Bar-Jesus,” “Son of salvation,” Elymas.

Apparently, the Roman procurator, Governor Sergius Paulus, lived in fear of the occult and of evil spirits, so he hired a magician to serve him and protect him there.

But being the wise and intelligent man that he was, when he heard that two Christian men, Paul and Barnabas, had come to town, he invited them to his palace to talk.  After all, he had served the people of Cyprus for years, with its idolatry and sensuality, and he was fed up.  Fantasy Island wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  He wanted a higher and more genuine spiritual reality.  And that’s why he desperately wanted to meet and to talk with Barnabas and the apostle Paul.

So there, in the governor’s palace on the island of Cyprus, there was a confrontation between light and darkness, good and evil, between Elymas and the apostle Paul.

And just as soon as Paul laid his eyes on him, listen to what he said:  “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”  As another translation puts it:  “You bag of wind, you parody of the devil—why do you stay up at night inventing schemes to cheat people out of God?  But now, you’ve come up against God Himself and your game is up.”  

Then what happened?  As Luke writes, “Immediately mist and darkness fell on him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.”

North of Armenia, between Turkey and Azerbaijan, there’s a cave called the Krubera cave, named for the bats that live there.  As far as we know, it’s the deepest cave in the world.

It was first explored by a French speleologist early in the Twentieth century, then was left undisturbed for the next seventy years.  Finally, in the 80s, 90s and still today, teams of spelunkers have attempted to plunge its depths.  So far, they’ve reached 7,208 feet.  That’s deep.  As one team member put it, “It’s like climbing Mt. Everest upside down.” 

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a cave, but one thing tour guides like to do when you visit there is to turn off the lights.  When the lights are on, caves are beautiful.  There are stalactites and stalagmites and crystalline rocks of all kinds.

But then the guide asks you to stand still for a moment while he turns off the lights.  And there you are in total darkness, forty percent darker, they say, than the darkest night you’ve ever experienced on earth.  That’s dark.

But even darker than the deepest and darkest cave on earth is the darkness that overwhelms and blinds our world.  The book of Proverbs says, “The way of the wicked is darkness.”  Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”  And Jesus said in the book of John, “This is the verdict:  Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light.”

Three years ago, it was darkness that caused a twenty-year-old boy to take the lives of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  It’s darkness that caused the people of Ferguson to loot, pillage and destroy $5 million worth of homes and businesses.  It’s darkness that caused a gunmen to shoot nine Christians at Umpqua community college in Oregon.  It’s darkness that caused a disgruntled employee to take the lives of a reporter and her cameraman on live TV.  And it’s darkness that caused some seven gunmen to kill 130 in Paris, France.

But that’s why Christ came.  He who is the Light, stepped down into darkness, walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and rose victorious for those He came to save.  That is, after all, what Peter wrote in his first epistle:  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out darkness into His marvelous light.”

Jim Petersen was a missionary with the Navigators to college students in Brazil.  And he made it his goal to meet with students one hour a week to walk through the gospel of John to take a closer look at Jesus.  “The gospel is true,” he would say.  “And the more people hear the gospel, the more they’ll see how true it really is.”

He tells the story of a 27-year-old single mom who came to live with her father, a new Christian and a member of his church.  Her parents had divorced early and her life was typical of many her age.  She had been married and divorced.  And, since then, she had lived with two guys without being married.  She had two abortions.  Now she couldn’t make ends meet, so she moved in with her father and started coming to church.

A few months later, she became Christian.  And after beginning to grow in Christ, she said, “I believed everything the world told me.  I believed you could marry and divorce at will, that you could have a baby or get rid of it.  It’s the woman’s choice.  I believed there was nothing wrong with living with someone.  I bought it all.  But the world had lied to me and my life was so empty.  Then I came to know the truth in Christ.”

We don’t know for certain how this story ends.  Luke writes that the proconsul, Sergius Paulus believed.  In fact, not only did archaeologist William Ramsey find his name, on the island of Cyprus, etched in stone, but he also found evidence that his daughter became Christian too, and gave up an official position because of her faith in Christ.

But whatever happened to Elymas?  We may never know.

But what will happen to you, we will know, for our Savior Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

We thank You, dear Father, for this story of Elymas the sorcerer and Your power over darkness.  Grant that we may always know that as You are with us, we are safe.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen


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