Turn From These Worthless Things
Acts 14 : 1 - 20
Paul is over in what we know as Turkey today. The city of Iconium was an ancient place, situated about 90 miles from Antioch, that is a distance of from here to Carlisle or thereabouts. Its people claimed that Iconium was older than Damascus which was founded around or before 2000 BC. Paul and Barnabas have gone to the local synagogue and as was their practice, and begun connecting the various prophetic passages of the Old Testament about the Messiah to Jesus. Paul always gave Jews the opportunity to hear the Gospel first. Of course, this was confrontational stuff, even if it was sugar coated with grace and love and peace. Paul was a clever and able disputant who loved an argument albeit it in the service of his Lord. As usually happened some Jews were converted and others were not. Likewise, outside the synagogue, as a result of preaching and teaching in the market place and in hired halls, some gentiles believed and others did not. However, there were sufficient from both groups to found a Christian congregation.
Paul and Barnabas, we are told, spent ‘considerable time’ there; many months in fact. They spoke ‘boldly’. That is important to note. This was frontier stuff. The area was not as civilised as the more central cities. There was a touch of the wild west about Iconium. But Paul and Barnabas were also instruments of help and healing and this confirmed the truth of their message and claims for Jesus Christ. Such successful evangelism provoked enmity. Nothing strange about that either. The sharp edge of the Gospel will always divide opinion. You might think that no Christian leader in our land today says as much, being afraid of the consequences. I am amazed that our Church leaders never seem to get to the point of mentioning the Gospel. Perhaps the new Archbishop of Canterbury will manage to make an evangelical point here and there. There are plenty of opportunities. It does not seem that a society without Christianity is better than one with Christianity. Although politicians seem to want to try to fill the vacuum that they have created by their own personalities, ideas and policies. That has been tried before and failed.
Alan Greaves was the organist at St Saviour’s Church in Sheffield. He was walking to Church to play at the Watchnight Service on Christmas Eve. He was mugged and brutally murdered. His widow described it as an act of evil. This was the kind of lawlessness that Paul and Barnabas suffered in Iconium. A lynch mob had formed to stone them to death and they were fortunate enough to hear of it in time. They had proclaimed the Gospel courageously but they did not see any need to die there; they had other work to do, many more places to evangelise. So they escaped to Lystra and Derbe to the south and moved around the villages there with the Gospel, keeping ahead of any in pursuit. Lystra is still there, known as Klistra and it has an ancient Church. Paul and Barnabas did good work in Derbe and later it became a Christian city - city of refuge indeed for persecuted Christians. The Emperor Diocletian destroyed it in 300 AD because of its Christian presence and many of the Christians left there and travelled to France and settled there.
First though, there was a miraculous healing of a cripple in Lystra which caused great action and reaction. It helps to understand what happened to Paul and Barnabas when we learn that in that polytheistic culture there was a legend that the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes (that’s the one that made the scarves) had visited the area in disguise. But no-one offered them any hospitality except and elderly couple called Philemon and Baucis. The gods took vengeance by killing the whole populace except these two elderly people who were given charge of a temple and turned into two great trees when they died. Now - you may be thinking, what rot! What nonsense! How could anyone believe that! Just have a look at the TV schedules over the holiday period. There you will see the same kind of nonsense in the name of entertainment; Edward Scissorshand, Twilight, The Wizard of Oz, The Princess and the Frog, The Lord of the Rings, Kung Fu Panda Holiday - I did not watch these by the way! But it is the same kind of thing. I watched a programme about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. But we saw him being a guest at a Star Trek Convention and shaking hands with Scotty - ‘Ye canne contradict the laws of physics’ - (who, the good people Linlithgow want to suggest was born there) and the generality of Trekkies present. Let us not mock the ancients.
When it was apparent that a miracle had occurred, the people decided not to make the same mistake again. And so they feted Paul and Barnabas. The identified Zeus with Barnabas, perhaps be cause he was the taller and better looking of the two, maybe with an aristocratic bearing. Tradition says that Paul was not a handsome man. Today he might be described as a geek. Hermes was the god of speech and messenger of the gods and because Paul was the principle evangelist, they identified Paul with him. So the temple priests brought out garlands and offered to sacrifice bulls in their honour. Paul and Barnabas were having none of this. They had not healed the cripple by their own power. They were not gods themselves but servants of the Living God. Why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. Flattery is always seductive and deceiving. The royal courts are full of such obeisance, but so are large businesses and even local councils and some parts of the Church, including at the opening of our General Assemblies. We used to see a lot of Hare Krishna folk on our streets. But these were lesser people some of whose job it was to spread flower petals on the ground in advance of higher ups in that organisation. Paul and Barnabas as Peter before them refused any worship of themselves; turn from these worthless things to the living God, they said.
When Paul discussed Christianity with Jews he always began with the Old Testament. It was their common ground. With gentiles he had a different approach. He began with nature and creation. He shared with them the human condition, the sun and the rain and seed time and harvest, food and wine and the gift and joy of life itself at its best. That was their common ground. These people did not know any better. But the challenge to believe in one God who was Maker of all things visible was significant and decisive. John Calvin emphasised this testimony of the natural world to the existence of God. And even today the scientist Peter Higgs has just recently criticised Richard Dawkins for not leaving enough space in his arguments against believing in God for the many scientists who do believe in God. Paul appealed to the earth and its environment.
Today we think about and imagine life beyond our solar system and beyond our universe. The Russian spacemen who circled the moon said triumphantly - 'we have found no god'. The American spacemen who circled the moon read from the Bible as they did so. What is different for us today from Paul and Barnabas in Lystra is that we think in enormous and extravagant time and distance spans. It would take many generations of our human life for a travelling convoy to reach the outer edge of what we know exists. And what would be there? More of the same? For how long? We just do not know.
Against this daunting and overwhelming scale of time and existence, Jesus revealed our Maker as present and concerned, knowing and caring about our personal life and living. That is what the Incarnation means. However great the scale of creation, the greater must be the Creator. But the same Creator owns and loves humanity on earth. This is what the life of Jesus is all about. And the apostles shared in the elemental powers of creation in the healing miracles they were able to perform in the Name of Jesus. But each of us has known the personal love of God in our own lives, in answers to prayer, in healing, help and blessing for ourselves and others. In being uplifted inspired and strengthened in our worship, in having our inner being and soul renewed and revitalised in contact with God through Jesus Christ.
Paul and Barnabas had been followed to Lystra by some Jews from Antoich and Iconium. They may have been deliberately trying to pursue Paul and Barnabas in order to sabotage the work of the Gospel, but they may also just have been there on business, grain merchants buying corn in that productive farming area. These Jews did have an agenda though. They were annoyed and angry that Paul and Barnabas were still preaching the Gospel. They managed to incite enough of the people against them. The text says they started throwing stones at Paul - but not at Barnabas apparently. This was mob violence. Paul collapsed, perhaps concussed. They dragged his body outside the city lest they be accused of rioting and suffer Roman retribution. They left him for dead. The newly converted Christians gathered round him. No doubt they bathed his wounds and dried the blood of the cuts on his head and arms and legs. Maybe Paul had played dead, maybe he had been knocked out. The mob did not finish him off. He recovered. And then with Barnabas he went straight back in to Lystra. Fearless. He took all that they could throw at him and still went back. Without malice, anger or thought of revenge. That was his witness to Jesus Christ. 'I can do everything through Jesus Christ who strengthens me'. The next day Paul and Barnabas moved on to Derbe to advance the Gospel and as we noted earlier, that city became an identifiable Christian place in time, so successful was their work and witness there.
'Turn from these worthless things' - that is our Lord’s challenge to us at the start of and throughout this year 2013. Every day there are lesser things, lesser ideas, lesser attractions, greater distractions; every day there are idols in our paths, false gods seeking worship and adoration, every day there are alternatives and diversions, every day there are baser words and actions; Turn from these worthless things to the living God. Put your trust in the risen Jesus Christ who died and rose again for you and loves you with an everlasting love.