Simon was the ultimate trickster. He made you believe his access to God was better than yours. For a fee, he'd pray for you. If you needed advice, he offered it to you - for a fee. When a miracle was needed, he'd twist you around, and you'd feel like he'd done something, though you weren't sure what. Yes, a fee was involved for that, too.
People called him a sorcerer. They assumed, because of his tricks, Simon could control God. Sorcerers knew they couldn't control God, but they learned (usually from another sorcerer) how to pull off some sleight of hand, or how to bluff somebody, or how to manipulate someone's leg to make it seem longer. People were more na ve in those days.
When you trick people for a living, the danger is you begin to believe your own PR. Long before P.T. Barnum billed his circus as the "greatest show on earth," Simon boasted he was the greatest. Nobody turns out to see the average sorcerer. The greater the fame, the higher the fee.
Rumors reached Simon about a man named Jesus. Everybody within 100 miles heard about him. People said he cast out demons and healed the sick. Naturally, whenever a sorcerer like Simon hears about someone like Jesus, they have two questions: How much is he collecting in fees, and how is he pulling it off?
Simon couldn't figure out how Jesus was doing it. The people who were being healed seemed to be drawn from the crowd. He had no accomplice to fake an illness or demon possession, a standard trick of the trade. Simon heard one story that seemed impossible: Jesus had just spoken a word, and a servant of a centurion was healed. Jesus wasn't even in the house.
What astounded Simon most, however, was Jesus didn't charge. He never passed the basket, never gave a rate for a prayer. Of all the things Simon heard, this one made the least sense of all. What was the point of doing all this if you didn't make money?
Months went by. Then Simon heard this same guy, Jesus, was crucified in Jerusalem. Before Simon could think "One less competitor," the news was followed by a report that he had risen from the dead. Simon was impressed. Talk about the ultimate trick! But Simon knew if Jesus started working the Samaritan circuit, with a reputation of coming back from the dead, his career was over.
The strange thing was after a few weeks, Jesus disappeared off the face of the earth. There was word his followers in Jerusalem said he went up to heaven and left them to tell everybody the good news. Simon couldn't figure it out but was relieved he wouldn't have to compete with the guy.
Business stayed pretty good for a few months, but then a man named Philip came into Simon's territory. Philip didn't promote himself; he just talked about Jesus. He invited people to change their lives by believing Jesus was the son of God and live by Jesus' teaching. Just like Jesus, he cast out demons and healed sick people. And just like Jesus, he didn't charge a fee.
Simon had to take a day off to see what this was all about. While he listened to Philip speak, his own heart moved. The lies he'd told himself wilted. His soul leaned in, and he wanted this new way of life, too. On the first day of the week, he lined up with other new believers, ignoring the murmurs in the crowd, and he was baptized by Philip. Something inside of him was happening.
He couldn't bring himself to get back on the trail, doing his old shyster tricks. Instead, he followed Philip around day after day, amazed. He kept trying to figure out how Philip was doing the miracles.
In a few weeks, two of Jesus' friends, Peter and John, came up from Jerusalem. They met with the new believers. They did a strange thing: They prayed over them and laid their hands on them. Exactly how, Simon could not explain, but he knew, and he knew the people knew, they had been changed.
The old familiar voice whispered again to Simon: "Imagine what you could charge with that kind of power?" Simon could picture himself in fine robes of gold, a new chariot (the latest model, with two cup-holders) and the crowds back hanging on his every word. He pulled out his money bag, went to Peter and dropped it in his hand. "Give me the power to give the Spirit," he said with a wink.
Peter put the money back in Simon's hand and gave him a blistering sermon. Peter gave clear instructions about repenting and taking this seriously, because God can't be controlled by people, and you cannot buy the power of God.
Simon faced a choice: the old or the new. Go with the old way, no matter how hollow or empty? Go with the old way, manipulating and using people? Or go with the new way? Find a new way to treat people. Find a new way to make a living. Find a new way to deal with life. Find a new life in Jesus.
We don't know what Simon did. We just know his choice. And in his story, we know our choice, too - old way, or new way. Simon's choice. And yours.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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