On the choices we make
Sunday 13th August 2017 1 Kings 11:41-12:20 Acts 14:8-20 Ps 86
How crazy was Rehoboam, in our first reading! How totally unlike his father. Wouldn’t we have expected something better from the son of the wisest king Israel ever had? Building the Temple had cost a fortune so Solomon had needed to raise taxes, but now, after his death, at a time when, due to his diplomatic skills and practical preparation, Israel was at comparative peace with its neighbours, there was a real opportunity to relax and consolidate. But Rehoboam ignored the advice of the elder statesmen, and took instead the far more abrasive council of his own peers. The pride and arrogance of his response which sadly sounds remarkably familiar in our own time, brought the inevitable reaction: “To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David”. So, tragically ended, so shortly after its inception, that great, God-inspired dynasty of David and Solomon.
How different the story of Israel might have been if Rehoboam had acted more sensibly, considering the well-being of his people above himself and taking time to consult the Lord? But no, this incident, just one of many in the history of Israel, is a typical example of poor leadership, despite the privileges and examples of God’s care, rulers turning aside to serve themselves, their pride and sense of self-importance controlling their judgement. Again, perhaps characteristics that often seem tragically familiar amongst World leaders in this our own day.
And of course these same traits, being natural human reactions, away from God, similarly characterise so much of the New Testament too. The rejection and crucifixion of Christ was driven to a large extent by the pride and arrogance of the religious leaders of the time, fearful of the potential loss of personal power and authority resulting from his teachings. And that same attitude clearly continued after his death, in their determination to eradicate any remaining vestiges of his teaching. How horrified and angry those leaders must have felt when Saul of Tarsus, one of their principal proponents, commissioned to exterminate that cell of followers in Damascus, should so suddenly and dramatically change sides to start using his impressive debating skills and scriptural knowledge against themselves, his former colleagues! It is perhaps only as we appreciate this background, that we can understand the hatred of these leaders for Saul, particularly as he embarks on his first Missionary journey, and their consequent determination to undermine and destroy him.
Following his conversion, this one-time enemy of the Church, Saul of Tarsus had, after a period of reflection returned to his roots, and in Acts 11 we find Barnabas going to Tarsus to bring him to Antioch, from where the two of them, after having taken funds to the poor in Jerusalem were commissioned for this first missionary journey, passing through Cyprus into Turkey where Saul first became known as Paul. From the start, we’re told in Acts, that this journey was opposed and attacked by “the Jews”, a shorthand term, used extensively in the Gospels and Acts to denote the opposing Jewish religious leaders. Wherever Paul and Barnabas went, the people were divided; there being considerable success as, particularly Gentiles took notice. But there was massive opposition from the Jewish leaders, who stirred up hostility, forcing Paul and Barnabas to move on from Cyprus to Pisidia in modern day Turkey and then, in Acts 14, to Iconium, where again serious opposition forced them to leave for Lystra, which is where our second reading picks up the story.
I find it interesting that the first thing we learn about their ministry in Lystra was the healing of a man who’d been crippled from birth. We’re told that this man had been listening to Paul’s preaching and that as he looked at him Paul sensed that he had faith to be healed. The man, whose name we’re not given, didn’t ask, he merely listened, and when Paul told him to stand, he obeyed instantly and with enthusiasm as he “sprang up and began to walk”, with absolute confidence. There are here at least two things from which we can learn. First of all, I suggest is the absolute hopelessness of the situation as we’re told not just that he’d been crippled from birth, but that he couldn’t use his feet and had never walked. This wasn’t some minor ailment, but a major infirmity and he’d no experience of walking, so one would expect a considerable period of adjusting and learning if and when his affliction was corrected. Yet he had confidence, ability and strength in that instant, not just to stand, but to spring up and walk around! That really is beyond even the wildest expectations of miraculous healing.
The second, and I believe potentially more significant lesson, particularly after our thoughts last Thursday, was the fact that Paul didn’t touch him, but merely spoke. On Thursday we noted that in Numbers 20, God told Moses to ‘speak to the rock and command it to bring forth water’, but Moses, on this rare occasion, disobeyed that instruction and instead “struck the rock with his staff”. The difference may seem minimal, almost nit-picking, but the effect on the people was to suggest that it was Moses who by his own action and in his own strength, provided the water, whereas, had he obeyed and commanded the rock in the Lord’s name to produce the stream, then all would have known it was God and not Moses who had effected this miracle, and that Moses was but the instrument through whom God was working. So here, Paul may well have been tempted to touch or lay his hands on this man, but instead, he simply spoke and the man was fully and completely healed.
Yet in spite of this, the watching crowds still attributed this healing to Paul and Barnabas, rather than to the Lord, and immediately started feting them as ‘Gods’. How tempting, in such circumstances must it have been to bask in this glory; to accept the praise and consequent financial benefit. How, if we’re honest do we believe we might react in such circumstances, if we were offered benefits and position for some work we had undertaken in the name of the Lord? O yes it’s wonderful when Christians who undertake some great charitable work are recognised and rewarded for their efforts; but I often wonder lest such adulation may detract from the one they serve. How often we hear of Evangelists or those offering a ministry of healing, accepting reward and praise, which rightly belongs to the Lord alone. How tempting for any of us to seek spiritual gifts that enhance our own status either within the Church or the community. But not so Paul and Barnabas as we read of them tearing their clothes and rushing into the crowds, trying to persuade them it was God and not they who had effected this miracle and that they were no different from any other. Now that, I suggest is true service of labouring and “asking no reward save that of knowing that we do His will”.
And the impact? Well from exaltation to execution. A bit like Palm Sunday to Good Friday, really. Back to normality in that we read the Jewish leaders came from the places where they’d previously attacked Paul and worked on persuading the crowds, who stoned him and dragged his body out of the city, left him for dead. How much easier it would have been to have simply accepted the veneration, but any who truly serve God can never be popular. It is, as Jesus said, not possible for us to serve both God and the values of this World as set by Satan. We just have to make that choice.
Duncan Burr, 13th July 2017, Evensong, at Aljambra