Friday, September 28, 2012

Harvest Sermon: Acts 14: 8-20 Men With A Message

I once heard it said that when the apostle Paul showed up, there was either a riot or a revival, whereas wherever I preach, they serve a cup of tea. When you hear of the episode of Paul in Lystra from our reading tonight, you can see both excitement (as the crippled man is healed), but also danger (as Paul is stoned and left for dead). And you might wonder why did Paul continue to go and tell people about Jesus whenever it was so dangerous?

As we hear the news of pastors and Christians in many nations of the world today who are imprisoned because of their faith; as news of Christians being targeted is heard - why bother? Why do they keep going? How do they keep going?

We find ourselves tonight joining Paul on his first missionary journey. As he arrives at the city of Lystra, he meets a man who has been crippled, lame since his birth. Paul is speaking, and notices the man, and sees that he has faith to be healed (or saved, Gk). Just as the apostle Peter healed the man in the temple courts (Acts 3), so Paul now heals this man, showing the power of God in his life.

Suddenly, the whole town is astir! They decide that Paul and Barnabas must be two of their (pagan) gods come down to them. They quickly swing into action to welcome these gods, and hurry to prepare a sacrifice to them.

You see, there was a local legend about another town that had been visited by Zeus and Hermes, where the gods had found no welcome, except for an old couple, who brought them into their home. That couple was rewarded, but the town was destroyed. The people of Lystra didn’t want the same thing to happen to them, and so they were ready!

It’s only as the priest of Zeus brings bulls and wreaths (garlands) for the sacrifice that Paul and Barnabas realise what is happening. They don’t accept the praise and sacrifices; they are horrified by what is going on, and Paul and Barnabas rush into the crowd to stop the pagan idolatry.

The way they do that is by declaring that they are men with a message. First of all, they are men. The people think they are gods, but Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes, in a sign of sorrow, of mourning. It’s almost as if they are also showing their humanness - that they are flesh and blood. Here’s what they say: ‘Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you.’

When you look at Paul and Barnabas, in one sense there’s nothing special about them. They’re just men. They’re not gods in disguise (as the Lystrans imagined). But they are men with a message - the message they have committed their lives to sharing as they travel across the entire region. And what is that message?

‘We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God.’ The message is the good news - the gospel - a demand to turn around.

Now, thankfully this evening I found my way here ok, but there have been some times recently when I’ve been heading out to visit parishioners. I go in what I think is the right direction, but realise that I’m going the wrong way entirely! I have ended up at the wrong house; and even sometimes up dead end lanes. What do I need to do? I need to turn around, and go the right way.

The Lystrans are going the wrong direction; they’re barking up the wrong tree; the idols they are clinging to are ‘worthless things.’ They were building their life worshipping a false, small g god, who couldn’t do anything. Zeus and Hermes had no power; they were just idols.

Instead, the good news called on the Lystrans to turn from these worthless things to the ‘living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.’ This living God is the powerful one, who created everything, who made us, and gave us life. This is the God who demands and deserves to be worshipped.

Now if the living God created everything, then how come the people of Lystra didn’t already know him? Why was it they were going in the wrong direction? Well, as Paul says, ‘In the past, he let all nations go their own way.’ The Lord was patient with the nations, giving them up to follow their own ways, developing their own mythologies - but as he will say in Athens, God now calls all people everywhere to repent, to turn back to God.

And yet, even in their idolatry, God has not left himself with a witness. Starting with what his hearers know, Paul points to the world around them, as a witness to the goodness and grace of the living God:

‘Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’

Even as the nations turned their backs on God; even as we have spurned him and gone our own way; there has always been a testimony to God’s kindness. It’s what he promised in Genesis 8:22 - ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.’

The rain (which we see plenty of here in Fermanagh) is a sign of God’s kindness. The Lord Jesus says the same in Matthew 5: ‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ (Matt 5:45). The rain is part of God’s common grace, his kindness shown to everyone. It’s a pointer to the Lord.

And in just the same way the fact that we have seasons and crops; food and satisfaction - these too point to the common kindness of the great Creator God. It’s fitting and right that we gather this evening and over this weekend to celebrate the Lord’s provision. Yet even having the signs of the Lord’s goodness all around us isn’t enough for us to know the Lord.

These pagans in Lystra had been rained on; they had eaten the crops and marked the seasons; they had even witnessed a miracle of the Lord’s healing in their city, and yet they were determined to worship their idols, sacrificing to the false gods, worthless idols.

Are we any better? Do we too receive from the Lord’s hand and yet worship other gods? Do we make costly sacrifices to the idols we serve? It might not be Zeus and Hermes, but it might be money, family, health, or power. The ads on TV are a great indicator of the idols of our society - youth; wealth; sex; prestige; celebrity, the list could go on and on.

The men with the message confront us as well, as we are reminded of the need to turn from idols to serve the living and true God - the God of all grace, who has not only provided food in due season, but has given us the gift of his own precious Son, the God who did come to us as a man; who demonstrated the kindness of God as he went to the cross; where he took the punishment we deserved for our rebellion and idolatry; to bring us back to the one true God. It’s what the apostle Peter writes about when he says that ‘it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ (1 Pet 1:18-19)

Paul and Barnabas were men with a message. This is the message they were sharing, even as the crowd tried to sacrifice to them; and then as the crowd (won over and urged on by the Jews of Antioch and Iconium) stoned Paul.

You may not stone the visiting preachers here (at least, I hope you don’t!), but there are other ways to reject the message - churchy ways of being polite, but continuing in your own way.

My prayer is that as we celebrate the harvest (as poor as it may be this year), that this will be a sign and pointer to the goodness and grace of God, the living God, who calls us to turn back to him.

This sermon was preached in Clogh Parish Church at the Harvest Thanksgiving on Friday 28th September 2012.

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