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As we consider this story this morning, the question I think we should be considering is “Whose power is at work in the world?” This is a question for everyone. It’s a question that the crowd in Lystra got wrong. It’s a question that we who follow Christ can get wrong, functionally at least. Whose power is at work in the world is another way of saying who or what do we worship, and what does that look like.
Paul and Barnabas are on the first missionary journey recorded in the books of Acts. Last time we encountered them they were in Cyprus. They’ve gone through Antioch, and Iconium. They preached at a synagogue in Iconium. Things went south for the two men there. Residents of the city wanted to mistreat them. To stone them. They flee to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia. They continue to proclaim the good news.
One thing we don’t hear about in Lystra is Paul and Barnabas going to the synagogue. It’s because there is no synagogue in Lystra. The good news is being proclaimed in foreign places. Places that had been heretofore totally unfamiliar with God’s story.
What is not unfamiliar is how God’s story is unfolding. We’ve spoken before about the good news bringing wholeness, bringing life. In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled at birth. We hear this and we hear the echoes of Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate. We hear echoes of Jesus telling a man who is paralyzed “I say to you, stand up and take up your bed and go to your home.” He’s listening to Paul as Paul is speaking. We have Paul looking intently at him and again we have this intent and attentive look that we hear throughout Luke and throughout Acts. Paul sees that the man has faith to be healed and Paul says in a loud voice (which surely has something to say about the power of God in proclamation) “Stand upright on your feet.” The man sprang up and began to walk.
And it is so far so good. Paul’s first public miracle!
The crowd gets excited. They’re shouting in the Lycaonian language. Paul and Barnabas have no idea what they’re saying. They’re seeing this positive reaction and are possibly looking at one another going “This spreading the good news thing is going great! Look at this response to this miracle of God!” It’s a kind of dramatic misunderstanding that I first learned about watching Three’s Company. Season seven episode seven in which Jacks’ kitchen-staffer Felipe’s cousin Maria is visiting from Mexico. Jack tells her that he’ll do everything he can to make sure things are good with immigration and will give her a job in his restaurant and they’re not understanding each other’s words at all. The niece thinks that Jack has asked her to marry him!
Hilarity ensues as you can imagine.
They’re calling Barnabas, Zeus and Paul, Hermes (the messenger god maybe as Paul was doing most of the talking). The gods have come down to us in human form! There’s a story written by Ovid about the same area in which two gods come to earth in human form and look for hospitality in the area. They’re rebuffed everywhere until they come to the home of an elderly couple. The couple takes them in and offers them a welcome. In the ensuing destruction of the area, the couple and their home are spared. Perhaps the Lycaonians don’t want to make the same mistake.
There’s a temple of Zeus just outside of town. The priest of Zeus brings oxen and garlands to the gates (maybe the city gates, more likely the temple gates) in order to offer sacrifice to the two men. At which point Paul and Barnabas realize what’s going on. They people of Lystra have mistaken Paul and Barnabas for gods.
And it’s funny sure. It was funny too when Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal. Told them that maybe their god was meditating or on a trip or sleeping. But you can only take the joke thing so far sometimes.
Everything had been going along great. Now we’re at the problem point. It’s not just a problem for the ancient Lycaonians either. That question that we asked at the start of all this is still operative. Whose power is at work in the world? Who or what are we going to worship?
To be getting this wrong is a matter to grieve. This is what the tearing of clothes meant in the culture of Paul of Barnabas. They came from a long line of people who tore their clothes to signify grief. What would be something equivalent today? We don’t like to do grief very often. We like to skate past it. Maybe lament is one way we can do it. Lament for how our world gets it wrong. Lament for how we get it wrong. Lament and remember God’s grace and remember this story which is not just intended for us to be able to poke fun at Lycaonians and shake our heads at them and say “Can you imagine?”
We don’t need to imagine because it’s all around us. This is the issue in our story right now. Worship of the creator is being confused with worship of what the creator has made. Paul and Barnabas rush into the crowd shouting and now everyone is shouting and they need to strain to make their voices heard and their message is “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you…”
Isaiah talked about the danger of worshipping the created rather than the creator in Isaiah 44.
We’ve talked about points of contact before in this series. Points of contact we have with the wider culture that we live in. We’ve talked about the idea that we have been created to be a part of something larger than ourselves. This idea that something has gone wrong. The idea that we have been created to worship something. The message of Paul here is that this worship has been misdirected. It is not our power that is at work in the world, it is God’s. It is God our creator to whom worship and allegiance and devotion is proper and fitting.
There are obvious ways in which we get this wrong. We talk tongue in cheek about sports gods and venerate their relics – sticks and sweaters and trophies – and keep them in hushed rooms. We’re familiar with the celebrity cult and I have to say the more I’m coming to view things through a Kingdom lens the more bizarre the celebrity (and sports for that matter) cult looks to me. This is what God is doing in my heart, it’s not me. I love sports after all.
A story has been told about a North American traveller to Nepal, going along a highway that ran alongside a mountain. At one point a rock had slid down and come to rest at the foot of the mountain. The rock was thought to be sacred and so the road was built around it. This had become such a fact of life and how life was constructed that it wasn’t even noticed anymore. The question for us is what are our stones? The things that we consider sacred to the point where we adjust our lives to accommodate them. Ourselves? The acquisition of money? Family? Education? Not every idol is in and of itself a bad thing after all. Patriotism? Morality? Body image? Perfection? Beauty? Reason? We could go on and on.
Into the midst of this the voice of Paul rings down through the centuries. “We bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” Paul turns to what’s called Natural Theology. There is a witness to God in creation itself. These people didn’t have the witness of the story of God as it was recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, remember. This is where Paul starts, because it’s important for us to know the people with whom we’re talking. He appeals to their emotions as this is a very emotional crowd (in a little while he’ll be appealing to the intellect of the cool Athenian crowd). “… giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy. All these things are from God. Paul never has the chance in this scene but if he had he might have gone on to say how in Christ this same God was reconciling the world to himself. The good news. This is the one who is worthy of all our adoration, all our praise, all our love.
Let not our love be misplaced. A misunderstanding has occurred here which Paul is correcting. There has been a distortion of the good news. A distortion of The Message. We may have experienced something like this ourselves. We may come across people for whom the good news has been distorted. We may have grown up believing that God is waiting for us to do something wrong so that he can hit us with a lightning bolt (literally or figuratively). We may meet people who believe that being a Christian is all about judging others because that has been their experience. How do we go about correcting such beliefs? Note the danger of the cult of personality that exists for church leaders. The attraction of adulation and praise. Note that Paul and Barnabas are quick to point out that this Kingdom which they proclaim is not about them. Church leaders at any level need to beware of making it all about them. Any member of a faith community needs to remember that it is not all about us and our personal wants or desires or takes on things or need to be in charge or need to control or however we want to make it all about me and distort the message and cause others to have bad experiences. May God keep us from such things and help us to speak and live the good news plainly and clearly and without impediment or putting barriers between people and God.
Things will go well for us then, yes? Not necessarily. We see opposition to the good news throughout Acts. Opposition coming from within and without. Here it is from without. Jews came from Antioch and won over the crowds and stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing he was dead. But when the disciples surround him he gets up and goes back into the city, from where he’ll leave with Barnabas to Derbe. As someone has said, “The journey of the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth is unstoppable but uncomfortable.” Amen to that. It goes on though and continues to spread. May God enable us to ever more deeply understand what it means to turn from these worthless things to the living God, and by our words and our deeds to extend that invitation to others. May these things be true for us all.