April 27, 2015 by Pastor Ben McIntire
Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and 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. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good — giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Ole and Lena were excited to take a trip back to Norway to visit their cousins in the Old Country. After arriving at the airport, they strolled into the Grand Hotel of Oslo and asked for a room.
“I’m sorry, but we have no rooms available,” said the desk clerk.
“What if King Harald and Queen Sonja came in? Would you have a room for them?” asked Ole.
“Yes of course!” replied the clerk.
“Well they’re not coming,” said Ole. “So just give us their room.”
We live in a celebrity culture these days. Famous people get special treatment, undue attention in the media, and the value of some people’s contributions to society are vastly overrated. I’m thinking here of one recent Red Carpet award ceremony, the Golden Globes, where George Clooney received a lifetime achievement award. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are the presenters. To watch the video clip on YouTube, click this link.
Tina Fey says, “George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin this year. Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected to a three-person U.N. commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award.”
That was a great burn on George Clooney, but also on the cult of celebrity in our society today. Maybe you heard Amy Poehler say, “Hollywood, Hollywood!” at the end of the clip. Whether they are film stars, professional athletes, singers, models, comedians, politicians, the King of Norway or other royalty, or even these strange celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton who are famous for no actual reason other than they are fodder for tabloids, for some reason people want to see them, hear about them, and often times, want to be like them. Many of us have probably thought about how cool it would be to have the rockstar kind of fame and recognition, the politicians influence or power, or at least the paycheck of these superstars. For many, the Red Carpet is a symbol of “having arrived” of making it big time. And preachers are not innocent of this either! Just look at some of the personalities on TV, writing books, and teaching seminars and speaking all around the country and world.
Being successful, even getting famous or becoming wealthy–these are not bad things in themselves. But pride, greed, envy–these sins often come along with the climb to the top. It can be easy, when so many other people make a big deal out of you and your accomplishments, to start to make a big deal out of yourself.
That’s one of the issues in Acts 14:8-18 for the apostles, Paul and Barnabas. How did they get into this position, where the crowds in Lystra begin calling them gods: Zeus and Hermes?
To answer this question, we can review the narrative–the story arc so far. Paul and Barnabas are both Jews, part of the heritage of God’s Chosen People of Israel, descendants of Father Abraham and children of the same covenant promise. Their special revelation from God was still marked by the Torah Law, the 10 Commandments given to Moses, and the Word of God spoken through the prophets. Now, when Jesus of Nazareth was born and began to proclaim the Good News–that God was again working in a new way, this time to forgive sins through the death and resurrection of his Son and to save the entire world in this way–the Jews who were ready to accept that Jesus was the Messiah of prophecy began to preach in a new way. These followers of Jesus were not trying to start a new religion, they were proclaiming the fulfillment of God’s promises in their Jewish faith.
Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee and strict student of Jewish Law, was furious about this new message. He persecuted those who preached about Jesus, even standing in approval as a mob stoned to death a Christian named Stephen. But on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Saul in a blinding light. Saul fell down, and Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?” He then sent Saul on to Damascus. After fasting and remaining blind for a few days, Saul was met by a man called Ananias, his sight was restored and he was baptized into the Christian faith that he had been persecuting. When he returned to Jerusalem, the disciples were reluctant to let Saul join them, but one of the prominent disciples, Barnabas, took Saul in. Barnabas was originally from Cyprus, but had probably been Jesus’ follower for some time. After his conversion, as he begins to minister to the Gentiles, Saul begins to use his Latin name, Paul, more frequently than the Hebrew Saul. Paul’s method was to put people at their ease and to approach them with the Gospel message in a language and style to which they could relate.
When the elders in the church at Antioch (in Syria) were gathered, they were told by the Holy Spirit to commission Paul and Barnabas to go on this first missionary journey. They set out, traveling to Cyprus, then Perga, Pamphylia, Pisidian Antioch and Iconium–all in modern day Turkey. As they travelled, they preached in the synagogues, mainly addressing fellow Jews about this new development of Jesus the Messiah. Some are convinced and others are enraged, even trying to have Paul and Barnabas stoned. Because of this lukewarm reception of the Gospel, Paul has declared a change in tactics, vowing to begin preaching to the Gentiles instead of the Jews in the synagogues. Where we catch up to our missionaries in Chapter 14, they have just fled Iconium to nearby Lystra. Here, Paul sees a crippled man who has faith in God, faith to be healed.
I love this detail, because once again, it is a reminder that God goes ahead of us. We do not have to do all the work, we don’t bring God to the heathens. God is already out and moving in the world he created, among all the people that he loves. But people like Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and you and me are sent out still to share and reveal more about God in Christ Jesus.
So Paul sees the faith of this man, lame and unable to walk since birth. He says, “Stand up!” and God heals the man. This miracle is enough for the crowds, who say Paul and Barnabas are gods in human form. Ironically, God in the human form of Jesus is exactly what Paul and Barnabas are there to preach, but they act quickly to explain that they are not Zeus and Hermes, and they stop the people from offering sacrificial cattle to them. Perhaps they had heard about King Herod, the one who along with Pontius Pilate, gave the authority for Jesus to be crucified. Just a little earlier, in Acts 12:21 it says:
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
If that’s what happens when you allow yourself to be worshipped as a god, then Paul and Barnabas didn’t need to learn that lesson for themselves. They stop the idolatry, the red carpet treatment, and the worshipping in its tracks.
So my question for us today, is how do we learn from this same example?
When we are used to the celebrity culture, the drive to be successful and wealthy, well-known and well-regarded by society, how do we learn to keep from letting it all go to our heads?
You’ve probably heard the phrase “In Jesus’ name,” I grew up hearing it, and that’s usually the way I end prayers: “in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
But in our daily lives, most of the things we do, consciously or unconsciously, are done in our own names: eating, sleeping, personal hygiene, hobbies, parenting, exercise, recreation. Often, though, our work is done in the name of others–our employers, the company, the organization, even the Church. Although even some of our work may be done in our own name because of things like paychecks, job satisfaction, and career advancement. In our volunteering, we are doing things in the name of others, or for the sake of others and their well-being; although again, there can be motivations that are in our own name: like reputation, the joy of helping people, or a sense of duty.
But as Christians, our starting point is always “In Jesus’ name.” That changes and influences everything for us. This week, I challenge you to think about the things you do. It’s OK to do things in your own name, don’t feel guilty about that! But as we take time to reflect on our motivations and reasoning, I think we will gain a better perspective on living a Christian life and learn more gratitude for the things that God does on our behalf. We may also give more consideration to our actions, and perhaps that will even improve our witness to others by our words and deeds. In this way, we can remind ourselves that the Glory… and the Red Carpet… belongs to God.
In Jesus’ name: Amen.