"Magic for Sale?"

January 4, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
(revised from January 4, 1989 sermon delivered at Greencastle, PA C.O.B.)
based upon Acts 8:4-25

In the Church Year, today is known as Epiphany Sunday. On this day we celebrate the "manifestation" of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the three wise men. Some churches call it "Three Kings Day." Of course, the wise men were not Kings, and there were probably more than three. They were known as "Magi," astrologers, men who watched the stars, sorcerers - magicians, if you will. That makes sense, doesn't it? Magi ... Magic ... Magicians: folks who seem to be able to do strange and wonderful things, that few other people can do.

This morning, though, we think of another magi, a man of magic. His name was Simon the magician. We’ve just heard his story from the book of Acts. When we become acquainted with him, he is practicing his trade in a city in Samaria. He was a popular character. He did his business well. The crowds stood in awe of all he could do. No doubt he was considered one of the top ten folks in town people would turn to if they needed help. He seemed to have a real power about him.

People like power. They like to see amazing things happen. They like to be astounded. In this world, most folks feel pretty powerless. I mean, the government always seems to have its way, armies conquer, diseases rage, children die. Things often appear out of control. Whatever or whoever is in control is often out of sight, though not out of mind. In such times, on such occasions, it's good to have someone you can turn to, someone who seems to be in control, who has the power to do something.

Simon was such a man. It was magical what he could do. People thought of him as a pretty great guy. They saw in him something they thought was the power of God. And Simon didn't give them any reason to think otherwise. Humility was not one of his virtues. The opinion he held of himself was a bit inflated.

One day, though, somebody happened along whose words and actions spoke of a greatness greater than anything that had ever come from the mouth or hands of this magician named Simon. This somebody was a fellow by the name of Philip. He came preaching the good news about a certain Jesus whom he claimed to be the Christ, the Messiah. And the people listened, even though he wasn't from Samaria.

But even more so, the people saw, for many miracles happened. People obsessed with or possessed by whatever, were freed. The lame and paralyzed became able to walk. The world seemed a little less out of control. Real power was there. People heard it, saw it. Many believed what this Philip had to say. It was good news to them. This Jesus must really have been the Messiah. Many were baptized, men and women alike.

Among those who were baptized was a certain magician named Simon. Apparently Simon saw in this Jesus something he didn't have. He stuck to Philip like glue. It was his turn to be amazed. People like to be amazed, they like to be astounded, even Simon. Maybe Simon was sincere in his conversion. Maybe he really did mean what he said in committing his life to Jesus Christ. But the power of the thing. Apparently that's what really did it. What magician wouldn't be attracted by even greater magic?

It wasn't long afterward that somebody new came to town. A fellow by the name of Peter, and another by the name of John. They were from Jerusalem. The Christians in Jerusalem had heard about the success Philip had been having in Samaria. They came to visit these new Christians, to pray with them, that they might grow deeper in the faith, be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Simon the magician was amazed when he saw these men. They had personally known Jesus. He watched as they laid hands on folks, and when they prayed, it seemed like magic. People came alive in the Spirit. It was a wonderful thing to see, much better than any of the tricks with which Simon used to astound. It was the power of the thing. He had to have it.

And so he did a fairly stupid thing. He grabbed for his wallet and offered to buy this power. Peter and John seemed to be reasonable men. Certainly they wouldn't object if someone else would go around with this power amazing and astounding the people, and perhaps drawing them to this Jesus. Simon put everything he had into his hand, and offered it to Peter. "Give me this power also," he asked, "that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."........

What followed was a very awkward moment. The smile that had been on Peter's face disappeared. The words that followed were harsh. "Simon, you know where you and your silver can go. And that's where you will go, as long as you believe the gift of God can be bought with your money. We thought you were baptized in Jesus, but apparently you have no part in the things of God, for your heart is not in the right place. Turn away from this evil in you, and pray to the Lord, that, if it is possible, this evil within might be forgiven and changed. Simon, when I look in your eyes, I see that sin, and the bitterness sin brings with it, have deep roots in you.".....

For a few moments Simon just looked at him. All he had wanted was just a little bit of magic. Was that so wrong? It was only a simple request, and yet this powerful man, Peter, said it had such terrible consequences. In almost a panic, Simon said to Peter, "Pray for me to the Lord that everything you said won't come true."

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Those are the last words we hear from Simon's mouth in the Bible. Were these words sincere? Was he really repentant? Did he really want to change? To be honest, I don't know. The scripture leaves that question up in the air. There are reports from other sources about a magician named Simon who roamed the Mediterranean world around that time period.

This Simon of legend, claimed to be God, and a religion sprung up around him. These people were called Simonians. But we really don't know if that Simon of legend is the same as the Simon we've met here in scripture. It's just like we don't know what really happened to our Simon.The Bible doesn't say. There are a lot of open ends like this in the Bible. I often think these open endings are there on purpose, to give us a door to enter in. After all, are we really that much different from Simon? I mean, take away the sensationalism this man built around himself, and you've got someone pretty much like you or me.

Those who are attracted to Jesus face a number of temptations. One of those temptations is to be drawn to God's power as a sort of magic. Another temptation is to think that such magic has a price which we can meet. Of course, we may not talk about it in these terms. Let me share an illustration from my own walk. When I was in Brethren Volunteer Service, I lived in Chicago, and participated with a church called Reba Place Fellowship. Two aspects of this church were very challenging (or troubling) to me. The first was that everyone shared their incomes. The second was that this was a charismatic church. I wasn't sure how I felt about either. I knew that my experience was not the same as theirs. I participated in a small group where I was able to express my reservations. The strange thing about such sharing is that you find you aren't so strange after all. Others echo your struggles.

Anyway, I remember talking about the Holy Spirit with them, talking about where I was, or wasn't, in relation to this third person of the trinity. Two things they shared with me about the Holy Spirit and its gifts. 1. There is nothing magic about it. 2. You don't have to have it all together to be a part of it. For me, at that time, those two things were pretty important.

I was like Simon the magician. Not that I had any magic with which I was puffing myself up. But what I saw happening around me was amazing and astounding, and I was intrigued by it all, even though I really wasn't ready to commit myself to it. In the back of my mind I felt that I really didn't have it all together. Furthermore, as I admitted to my friends there, I felt that in order for God to be more active in me, I had to have it all together. Now, that may not sound like Simon to you, but it does to me. If I have it all together, then I can pull out my money bag of achievement and try to buy the power of God, as if it were some sort of magic that could be bought. And that's exactly what Simon tried to do.

The other Simon, Simon Peter, said exactly what needed to be said. Such an attempt only leads to destruction. The hardest thing in the world for us all to understand is that what we need from God can only be given, whatever it is, we can't buy it, whether with money, or by having everything all together, having our life all in order, we can't buy it with our intelligence or, for that matter, with the pride of simple-minded-ness.

We can't buy any power from God with our ability, or our achievements, or our titles, or our connections. The simple truth is that God’s power is not for sale, just as it is not a form of magic that we can hold in our pockets and use to get us places, like a holy MasterCard or Visa. If it were magic, we could heal every illness, just by the touch of our hands. But God’s power isn't magic. That doesn't mean we shouldn't touch, that we shouldn’t pray for healing, does it?

And if God’s power were for sale, then whenever it didn’t operate right we could just say that "so and so" just didn't meet the price - maybe they didn't have enough faith (which could be true, but not necessarily). But God’s power is not for sale. It is a gift. If we were to try to buy it, there’s no way in the world we could ever afford it. Our many attempts to meet the price all lead in one direction - downhill. The power of God is not magic for sale.

What Simon the magician failed to understand, I think those other magi, those truly wise men did. The gold, frankincense, and myhrr which they laid at the manger of Jesus was not in exchange for services to be rendered. They were just gifts. Sort of like the gifts God gives to us. But that’s another sermon for another day.

The last hymn could be "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," but it's not. Instead, let's allow that power to flow through our singing, as we pray "O Holy Spirit, Making Whole", #300.

1998Peter L. Haynes

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