King's Acre, 8 August 1999

Worshipping False Gods

1. Introduction

I sometimes wonder what goes through the minds of lectionary compilers, I really do! I mean, you could scarcely have two more different passages that the Old Testament and New Testament readings we have just listened to. On the one hand, the disintegration of a nation sliding inexorably towards civil war and division; on the other, a healing and an acclamation of Paul and Barnabas.

So what can we make of these two passages? Is there a link between them, and, more importantly, what has God to say to us through them tonight?

The End of the Dream

So let's look at our first reading, to start with. Solomon has just died, and his son Rehoboam is to inherit. At least, so Solomon thought, and so Rehoboam thinks. But what they didn't know was that God had decided that Solomon's family weren't fit to rule any more. The thing was, if you were a king in Israel, you ruled because God willed it, not because of an accident of birth. Solomon had been God's choice of king but not necessarily because he was David's son - and David, you may remember, had been no relation to Saul, as far as we know. But although for most of his reign Solomon had been a Good King, in the latter years he had been tempted to worship other gods, and had, sadly, yielded to that temptation. All too easily done, I'm afraid.

However, easy or not, it was the one thing God simply couldn't tolerate. And so the kingdom was to be taken away from Solomon's family and given to a young man called Jeroboam, son of Nebat. I'm not quite sure why Jeroboam, since he introduced all sorts of evil like worshipping golden calves and so on, but still. However, God said that because he loved Solomon, he wouldn't remove the kingdom until after Solomon's death, and even then one tribe would remain in his family's hands, because of God's love for David.

So Solomon dies and Rehoboam duly becomes king. But I think Rehoboam was a good example of the old adage that all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Led by Jeroboam, the people come to him and ask what sort of a king he plans to be, whether he will make their lives easier than Solomon had. And he, very sensibly, asks for time to consult with his advisers. But he decides he doesn't like the wise and kind advice of the elders, who say that if he becomes the people's servant, he will be a great king. I am reminded of Jesus' comments about the person who would be great must first become the servant of all, aren't you? Anyway, that sort of humility doesn't appeal to our Rehoboam, who far prefers the advice his contemporaries.

I assume they are young. It's only the young who confuse "fear" and "respect". Rehoboam, who would have won the people's respect if only he had agreed to go easy on them, to be their servant, lost it by trying to rule through fear. And - well, Jeroboam was there, and the ten tribes defected to him, leaving only Judah with Rehoboam. And, sadly, the rest is a history of civil war, confusion, idol-worship and general unpleasantness until finally, about three hundred years later, the tribes are conquered and never heard of again. Sad, really. Israel had started off so well, yet it all ended in tragedy and confusion.

A Happier Affair

On the face of it, our second reading, from Acts, is a lot happier. Paul and Barnabas are in Lystra, a city in the heart of what we would now call Turkey, not far from present-day Konya. It was in the province of Galatia, so perhaps was one of the recipients of the letter to the Galatians.

And they think that Paul's friend Timothy might have come from there, so he might have been one of the new believers in the city.

Even as Paul begins to preach the Gospel, a crippled beggar believes and is healed. But the crowd don't hear the message, they only see the healing, and so they assume that Paul and Barnabas are two of the Greek gods come in the flesh, perhaps Zeus and Hermes? Poor Jewish Paul and Barnabas are shocked silly: "Friends," they cry, "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 still, we are told, the crowds could barely be prevented from worshipping Paul and Barnabas. And then the local Jewish population, stirred up by their brothers and sisters from Iconium, the town Paul had been to before he went to Lystra, started to stone them, and Paul seems to have been knocked unconscious. They dragged him out of the city and left him for dead. But - well, Luke isn't very clear as to what happened next, but the local disciples seem to have prayed over his body, and he seems to have recovered, certainly enough to spend the night in the city and to go on to the next town on his schedule, Derbe.

Worshipping False Gods

So the link between our two readings, then, seems to be worshipping false gods. Hmm. Not an easy one to tackle. After all, it doesn't really happen today. Or does it?

Most of the modern religions, except possibly Buddhism, do worship God. And we know that all religions have some of the truth; it's just that we believe that Jesus is the truth. Most religions worship God - the Hindus are probably the nearest we have in the modern world to a polytheistic religion, and even they often say that Vishnu, Shiva, Kali, etc, are aspects of God. But, of course, Christianity is the only religion to say that Jesus is Lord; most other religions just grant him the status of a prophet, on the same sort of level as Mohammed or Abraham or Baha'u'llah. And we are unique in believing that Jesus is alive today, and that through him we can have a parent-child relationship with God.

I don't really blame Solomon, you know, for going off after other gods. It is not easy to be God's person, even today. Back then, if you worshipped Baal or Astarte, you only had to go through the motions. You didn't have to be whole-hearted about following them; quite the reverse, it was rather trendy to follow all sorts of gods. As, indeed, it was in the ancient Roman world. I'm not sure how much, by Jesus' day, the average Roman citizen really believed in Zeus, Hermes and so on, but I think it was often a good excuse for a party, and some people enjoyed collecting bizarre and esoteric religions. In any event, apart, perhaps, from Mithraism, nothing was demanded of you. You just had to spend a bit of money, and go through the ceremonies. All very easy.

And, of course, being a Christian has never been like that. You know, and I know, that it's perfectly possible to treat Christianity in that sort of way, and certainly up to the last war - and since, in Northern Ireland - there were people who went to church because it was the done thing, and because it might advance them socially or professionally. You were more inclined to trust the solicitor or doctor whom you saw worshipping every Sunday at Morning Service than the one you did not see, whatever either of them may or may not have believed! Of course, only God knows people's hearts, and it's not for us to judge, but even still.

Today it's different. Few of us go to church unless we really mean it, as there is no social stigma attached to not doing so. In fact, it's often considered a bit weird and old-fashioned to go to Church. And all too often people are encouraged to meet their spiritual needs elsewhere. Rather like Solomon's wives encouraged him to sacrifice to Baal and Astarte, so people today tend to seek spiritual fulfilment apart from Christ. Which, of course, is largely our fault, as churches, because we haven't been able to show how wonderful Jesus is. But that's not the point. It's not about breast-beating.

I don't know what the people of Lystra believed, or whether they were very spiritual people, but when they thought that their gods might be walking among them, they quickly became so. They were spiritually hungry, and ready to worship, and it took all of Paul's and Barnabas' ingenuity to stop them worshipping them. And today, people are spiritually hungry. They will search for God in all the wrong places, not even thinking that we, the church, can meet their needs. And then they go off-course, as Solomon went off-course, as the people of Lystra so nearly did.

I don't know how much the people who wrote down the histories of David and Solomon and so on had their own agendas; they saw that the kingdom split into two after Solomon's death, and may have ascribed this to God's punishment because they liked to find a crime to fit what looked like a punishment. On the other hand, the kingdom may simply have split because Rehoboam was not the man his father and grandfather had been, and couldn't hold it together. We don't know, and at this distance we probably never shall. I don't tend to believe that God punishes people like that; I think we cut ourselves off from God, but that's a different matter. God doesn't cut himself off from us.

Conclusion

So what is this all about? I think it's about our own commitment as much as anything else. We aren't about to go off and join another religion - well, I hope we aren't, although anything is possible. But how much are we being able to communicate what we have found in Jesus to those who haven't yet found it? Are we just presenting Christianity as a set of facts in which we happen to believe, or are we showing that we have a living relationship with Jesus? This is, as you can imagine, much on my mind just now. One creed may or may not be as good as another, but it is the relationship with the living God that we have through Jesus that makes us Christian.

I don't know what the answer is. All I can say is - I've failed, and failed very badly. I know that. I have to come to terms with that. But God, who works all things for good can work even this for good. After all, if the kingdom hadn't split, perhaps all the tribes would have been taken into exile and absorbed. As it is, the kingdom of Judah survived and became the forerunners of today's Jews. And, of course, of Jesus! If the people of Lystra hadn't confused Paul and Barnabas with Zeus and Hermes, they might not have been willing to listen. And so it goes on. We are never told what would have happened; all we can do is to trust God to bring good out of what has happened. Amen.

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