July 24, 2016

SERMON – JULY 24, 2016 (Guest preacher: Dorothy Cotter)

This morning we continue with the adventures of Paul and Barnabas.  This time we find them in the region of Lycaonia, specifically the city of Lystra.  This is located in what is now modern Turkey.  It was known, in the ancient world, as an ignorant backwater, populated by superstitious yokels.  It looks like Paul and Barnabas’ work is cut out for them – not that it has been easy thus far…

As per their usual agenda, one of them performs a miracle: discerning that a crippled man has the requisite faith, Paul tells the man to “Stand upright on your feet.”  Upon doing so the crowds immediately respond to the miracle by shouting out “The gods have come down in human form!”    They refer to them as the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, and immediately bring garlands as tribute, and oxen for sacrifice.

But this is not so unusual for the place that had been described as a backwater.  They would not have known that mere mortals, through the Holy Spirit, would be capable of such healing.  And the gods of the pagan world were capricious beings, following their own whims, good or evil, and often times taking their wrath out on humans for no good reason.  The gods were to be appeased, placated, appealed to for favors, but otherwise were to be kept as far from humanity as possible.

And there is a story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, of the region of Lycaonia being visited by Zeus and Hermes, in human form.  They went from place to place, visiting thousands of people, asking for aid and shelter.  No one would welcome them.  But a poor, elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in.  Later when the region was flooded, and the whole population was wiped out, the couple was spared.

Given this history, or mythology, if you will, the Lystrans were not going to make that mistake again!  Paul and Barnabas are disturbed at the attempt to worship them, and rend their garments, and tell the people that they are mortals, just as they are.

And so we come to an impasse:  the Lystrans think that the apostles are gods; Paul and Barnabas know that they are not God.  But how to convince these folks of the one true God, and his Son, Jesus?

They aren’t getting much help from the Jews, who come from Antioch and have Paul stoned.  Come to think of it, they aren’t getting much help from the local Jewish populations wherever they go.  They just came from Iconium, and the Jews there joined with the Gentiles to run them out of town, as well.

So, some receive the message gratefully, while others are resistant, if not downright hostile, to receiving the Word.

But now, fast forward to the present age:  Are people hearing the Word?  Is there idolatry still going on today, as with the non-Jews in Paul and Barnabas’ day?  And what are we, as Christians, to do about it?

And so I would ask you three questions: How do you know of God?; How have you come to know God personally?; and How do you convince others of the existence of the one true God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ?

That’s a tall order, I know, but let’s break it down into manageable pieces.

In Bible study, this past week, I asked the participants how they came to know God.  We went around the table, and listened to each person’s story.  Some had always known God since childhood, and it was a given that they would believe in Jesus Christ, since they were raised in the church.  Some had never been to church as a child, but came to know God through friends, or by having the curiosity to attend church, or by coming to the conclusion that the universe did, indeed, have a Supreme Creator.  This led to their seeking God, and finding Jesus.

Many people are what we would call “un-churched”.  They have never been, or have fallen away for some reason (usually a negative reaction to the way they perceive God), or just don’t believe it is rational to acknowledge a being greater than themselves and the whole of creation.  It is hard for those of us here in this sanctuary to understand why people have not come to God, or a realization of who God is.

The modern world has done nothing to enhance our relationship.  But, come to think of it, the secular world has always been hostile in one way or another.  Too many things grab the attention of people, and keep them from seeking, let alone knowing, God.  You know the list.  I won’t bore you with the details.  Suffice it to say that the holy is hard to find in a world full of  material goods, a media that constantly harps on the sensational, and the bad things that happen to good people.  God does, indeed, seem hard to know.

The second question, once you have come to know of the existence of God, is how does that affect you personally, and how do you continue to grow in the faith?

Well, you’re in the right place this morning, that’s for a start.  One needs the fellowship of other Christians to bolster one’s hope and belief in Christ.  The outside world will gang up on you once you are out those doors.  One needs to put on, as St. Paul put it, “The whole armor of God”.  Just outside the door of the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Falmouth, is a sign, facing the exit, that says: “You are now entering the mission field”.  I mentioned this to Pastor Tim (who has also noticed the sign), and he says that the mission field is inside, too!  I like it!  Inside, and outside, we need to encourage our fellow Christians to carry on.

And now, to the last question, which, I guarantee, will make your day:  How do you convince others, who do not know of, or have a vague understanding of, or, and this is the challenging one, a negative perception of God?
There are no easy answers to this question.  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, either, but let’s give it a try!

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the quote: “Preach the Gospel always.  If necessary, use words.”  That’s as good a place as any to start.  It is difficult to begin a conversation about one’s faith.  It is difficult to verbally put one’s personal beliefs into words.  Nowadays, it is considered to be politically incorrect to comment on anything in terms of Christian belief or practice.  The world can be downright hostile.

When I was working with the intellectually disabled, I supervised a work crew out at the Coast Guard Station, cleaning the officer’s overnight quarters.  One day, one of my crew, a sweet little gal with Down’s Syndrome, was cleaning away and stopped to swear at something.  Since taking the Lord’s name in vain is considered offensive to a lot of people, I stopped to tell her that she should not talk like that, especially in public.  This she told her mother, who informed my supervisor, and I was told not to “impose my beliefs” on other people.  The irony of this is, that this woman’s mother was a church-going Roman Catholic. And her father was a CCD teacher!  So, if someone like that objects to one’s beliefs, well…

However, there is a master plan, thought up by the Master Himself.  The Holy Spirit!  As it says in our readings this morning, the disciples themselves were filled with the Holy Spirit!  The Holy Spirit, is of course, God himself!  So, how do we bring the Holy Sprit to those who are wary, skeptical, or downright hostile?

Prayer, my friends.  It all comes down to asking God for his intervention.  Ha! You say.  I can do that.  But will it help?  How do I know?  It all seems so nebulous…

Believe me, I understand.  But I have come to know God through the Holy Spirit, and you have, too!  And one’s prayer life is directly linked to the power of that Spirit, to transform your own life. And it will transform the life of others.  Pray without ceasing!  We have all seen wonderful things come of prayer.  Rather we notice them, or not, is a matter of listening to God, and continuing to perfect our faith.  As we perfect our faith, we become stronger, and as we become stronger, we become a more vocal and perfected instrument for God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, go out to the mission field of the world, from the mission field in the sanctuary, where all can come to be healed, redeemed, blessed by the Holy Spirit.

It is up to us to take that Spirit, and spread it abroad to everyone who so desperately needs it.  Is it easy?  It seldom is.  Will you be stoned for your efforts?  Some ways, perhaps.  Will you get up as Paul did, go back into the city, and continue on your mission.  You can!  With the Holy Spirit, you can have the strength of God behind you, and the courage of your convictions as a follower of The Way.

So, may you all be filled with the Holy sprit this morning.  May you know, without hesitation, that Jesus is Lord.  May you realize that God is with you through the Spirit, always.  May you pray every morning for that Spirit to envelope you, fill you, nourish you and shield you.  God will go with you every minute of every day!  May you go out with the joy of that Spirit.  And may God bless you, always!