One miracle, five responses …

St Michael’s, June 12th 2016

Readings – Acts 14:8-20; Matthew 11:25-30

  • A miracle
  • The crowd’s response
  • The apostles’ response
  • The opponents’ response
  • God’s response
  • Our response

One miracle … five different reactions or responses.

The miracle v8-10

Time and time again in the gospels, Jesus healed the lame. When Jesus died, rose and ascended into heaven, the healings didn’t simply stop … In John 14:12, Jesus told his disciples,

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

And so, as Acts 5:12 tells us, The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people.

So when we come to yet another healing, this time in Acts, we have the tendency to skim over the details, we’re too familiar with what was, at the time, something quite extraordinary. Paul and Barnabas, having been sent on this church planting journey by the Holy Spirit, are in Lystra. We don’t know if they followed their usual pattern of preaching first at the Synagogue, to Jews … our author, Luke, is in too much of a hurry to tell us what happened after this miracle to give us all the details. So the details we do have are significant. The man was lame and had never walked, and he listened carefully to what Paul had to say. I think we can safely assume that Paul has been preaching about Jesus, although Luke doesn’t tell us what he had been saying.

But the detail that particularly interests me about this healing is the little phrase in v9, (Paul) saw that he had faith to be healed. The man wasn’t begging, or crying out to be healed … he was simply listening to what Paul had to say, and (Paul) saw that he had faith to be healed.

Back in Acts 13 we read how the Holy Spirit told the church to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (as he was then known) for the work to which I have called them. We aren’t often told how the Spirit leads in this way, though we do get a brief insight in chapter 16, when Paul and Barnabas are prevented by the Spirit from going to Asia, but instead receive a vision of a man from Macedonia asking them to come … so, Luke says,

…we got ready at once to leave, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (16:10)

So as we read on in our story this morning, remember that everything that happens is at the instigation of the Holy Spirit … including that moment of insight when Paul realised the lame man was ready and able to be healed (I pray for moments like that!). I don’t know how he knew, but Paul was totally confident … ‘Stand up on your feet!’ … a direct command, no hesitation. I pray for moments like that, too!

The crowd’s response v11-13

While we don’t know the exact circumstances of the miracle, we do know there was a crowd in attendance when the lame man was healed … and their reaction to the miracle was to exclaim, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ (v11) They recognised that something astonishing had happened … but that’s OK, because they had a routine for just this kind of thing … The priest of Zeus and the crowd … wanted to offer sacrifices to (Paul & Barnabas) (v13)

The danger when we see God at work is that we too, want to fit him into our existing structures and routines … the crowd in Lystra were clearly religious, they worshipped at the temple of Zeus, and had a system of offerings and sacrifices, so when they saw the miracle, they wanted to worship as they had always done … perhaps with a new zeal and appreciation, but within the familiar ritual and routine.

But new wine needs new wineskins … Luke 5:37, (Jesus said), ‘no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.’ Now that’s not a familiar image in our time and culture … the nearest I could come was a pair of new shoes … I have difficult feet, and when I buy a pair of new shoes, they have to be soft enough to adapt to my feet, to stretch a bit in odd places (hopefully fairly quickly), to ease to fit my feet. When God does a new thing, it can be really uncomfortable … so we try to make it fit, to make it comfortable. But rather like some shoes I buy that are never comfortable, so get given or even thrown away, sometimes we have to discard the old, comfortable familiarity and find a new way of doing things.

Perhaps it never even occurred to the crowd in Lystra that this miracle was something different, something new … that it could teach them something unexpected about ‘the gods’ they worshipped. They wanted to rush ahead and absorb this new experience into their pre-existing structures … they wanted to make the best of it without the discomfort of having to change anything.

The apostles’ response to the crowd v14-18

The priest of Zeus clearly wanted to make the most of this opportunity to encourage the people to worship, he didn’t reject the miracle as a challenge to his authority as Jewish leaders did … but Paul and Barnabas are desperate to avoid any misunderstanding … they could not accept worship that was due to God alone.

Sometimes it’s an attractive prospect, to join with those of other faiths to gain a hearing for Christ, making the most of any opportunity to engage with other religions and spiritualities. Tim told us last week how Paul adapted his message to the culture around him, using something familiar to them as his starting point, but we must be careful never to give to another that which belongs only to God, which is rightfully his; prayer, worship, praise … the truth is too important.

We have to be honest with the people we meet, to offer them only the truth about God … even though Paul and Barnabas here don’t immediately and explicitly mention Jesus, they prepare the ground for the gospel by talking about the living God, (v 15,16) who made the heavens and the seas … (who) in the past let all nations go their own way … the creator God who knows and judges the actions and hearts of men. It is only when people know their need, that they will recognise an offer of help, of salvation!

Yet, v18, even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

For all that the Holy Spirit lead Paul and Barnabas to the lame man, and gave Paul discernment and the power to heal, it didn’t on this occasion mean that the people were ready to hear the good news. And things were about to get even harder …

The opponents’ response v19-20

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over …

Not the people of Lystra, but opponents from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, places that Paul and Barnabas had already visited and where they had been able to win converts and plant churches … causing offence to the existing Jewish religious authorities.

And the crowd proved to be fickle … after all the apostles’ efforts, and despite the leading of the Holy Spirit, the seed had been sown on stony ground and was snatched away. Think of the parable of the Sower …

So the crowd turned on Paul … not the only time Paul risked his life for the sake of the good news of Jesus. There was no miraculous rescue … but perhaps there is the hint of another miraculous healing in v19, the disciples gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. Having been left for dead by the crowd, Paul was able to stand and walk and next day, to leave to try again in the next city, recognising that staying in Lystra would be wasted effort at this time.

When we work hard and long for the sake of the good news, do we consider our efforts to be a failure when there is no response, even outright opposition? We pray for years for a loved one or a friend, or we try to talk to our neighbours and colleagues about our faith and are ignored or rejected … is that failure? Why doesn’t God do something? Are we getting it all wrong?

God’s response

Look carefully at v20 … see that mention of disciples … not those who may have travelled with Paul & Barnabas (they rarely travelled alone), but those already in the city, and who, after Paul and Barnabas left, stayed in the city despite the opposition.

The working title for this sermon was ‘Making yourself understood’ … but however hard we try, it doesn’t always work – remember v18; even Paul and Barnabas failed to persuade the crowd to believe, or to consider the possibility that they were wrong about ‘the gods’ they worshipped, even though they had clearly understood that the miracle was something supernatural. Had Paul & Barnabas failed in their mission?

From Lystra, they went to Derbe – where this time they successfully planted a church (v21), and then it was time to return home to (Syrian) Antioch, to report back to their sending church all that God had done. So they retraced their steps, visiting v21,22, Lystra, Iconium and (Pisidian) Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. And listen to what they told the new believers, v22, We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. Lystra wasn’t the only city in which they faced such opposition, but it seems at first sight to be the only place that Paul and Barnabas were unable to win many converts and plant a church.

Yet, when Paul returned to Lystra a third time, on his second missionary journey (this time without Barnabas), Paul met Timothy (Acts 16:1) … God had been faithful to the few who remained. Their calling wasn’t to travel the world planting new churches, equipped with God-given gifts to perform miracles and wonders. Their calling was simply to stay where they were, to survive, to remain faithful in spite of opposition or indifference, and to be ready whenever and whatever God called them to do … Timothy was just the companion Paul needed to travel with him, along with Silas and Luke, on the next stage of his journey.

Our response

Right back at the beginning of Acts 13 we read how the Holy Spirit spoke to the church in (Syrian) Antioch, calling Barnabas and Saul (as he was then) to follow the Spirit’s direction on this first missionary journey. (Paul would go on to make two more such journeys before his final journey to Rome).

We don’t know how the Holy Spirit spoke to the church or how he led Paul from place to place, though we know how the Spirit kept Paul and his companions out of Asia and led him onto Macedonia through a vision. The general rule of thumb for disciples, both then and now, is to stay put until God makes it clear that you are to move on – and even then he may not tell you where. So for many of us, our calling is simply to stay … to remain faithful and obedient in our community or workplace, perhaps without ever seeing results … new believers, changed lives, miracles … but open and ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15). Repeat quote …

We want to gain a hearing for the gospel, the good news about Jesus, but we must be careful not to compromise, even if it means we experience indifference, rejection or even persecution.

Because this is the norm for those who are faithful, who are true to Christ and their calling to be disciples wherever they are. In all the cities in which Paul and Barnabas made converts and planted churches, there was almost always costly opposition.

How then do we remain faithful year after year when it seems as if nothing is happening, no-one is being saved, that we have failed in our mission to make disciples?

In our reading from Matthew 11, Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

What does Jesus mean when he says his yoke is easy? It’s another image from a bygone age … two animals yoked together to pull the plough. Uncomfortable, hard work even in pairs. But remember my shoes … just occasionally I find a pair of shoes that fit perfectly out of the box … those are my ‘easy’ shoes … that’s what easy means here, that Jesus’ yoke fits us perfectly. If we are obedient to the Holy Spirit, whatever he calls us to do, our burden, our yoke is made to fit us perfectly, and we don’t pull the plough alone … this is Jesus’ yoke, he shares it with us, that’s why the burden is light … so often our problems and difficulties are simply because we want to do it our way, to fit God into our comfort zone … we wriggle and fidget inside the yoke he has designed for us, because we want to go in a different direction, to avoid conflict or even to stay at home.

Through the Holy Spirit, God called Paul and Barnabas to journey for the gospel … but he called a faithful few to remain and continue the work in Lystra, including Timothy, who went on to be Paul’s companion, and to write two of the letters in our bibles. We don’t know what happened to the church, to the disciples in Lystra … but we do know that despite appearances, God was at work in that city … and in ours.

Following the miracle, the crowd wanted to carry on as before, the apostles refused to compromise, the Jews wanted to destroy the work of God, but God continued to work in the lives of those he had called … where have you seen God at work, in your life, or the life of others? What is God calling you do to, where is he calling you to go (or stay)? What is he calling you do change as a result of his blessings? How will you respond?

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