Sermon: When Gods Come to Town

A Harvest Service Sermon

Preached by the Reverend Doctor Trevor Jamison at

Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields

September 25th 2022

Act 14:8-14


What would you do if the gods came to town one day? Well, a couple of thousand years ago, in a town called Lystra, located in what is present-day Turkey, that’s what people thought had happened. Shortly, we’ll hear about that, and to help us understand why those people reacted in the way that they did you ought to know about a popular story that would have been familiar to the people in Lystra at that time.

The Latin poet Ovid had popularised an ancient local legend. In that story the Greek supreme God, Zeus, along with Hermes (the messenger or spokesman for the gods), disguised as humans, visited the hill country of Phrygia. Seeking hospitality, they were rebuffed time after time. At last, they were taken in by a poor peasant couple. Afterwards the gods richly rewarded that couple. They also destroyed by flood the homes which would not take them in.

With that story in mind, let’s see how the people in Lystra respond when they think that those gods may have come to visit.

BIBLE READING          Acts 14:8-14

When ‘the man sprang up and began to walk … [and] the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted … ‘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 … brought oxen and garlands … [because] he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.’ (14:1-13)

They wanted to express their thanksgiving to the gods for coming to visit. Perhaps they had one eye on the divine rewards that would come from making them welcome. Perhaps they had another eye on not annoying them, so as to avoid being swept away in a flood, or brought low through some other divine punishment.

Of course, their thanksgiving was misdirected. Paul and Barnabas had to run around denying that they were gods, and instead try to redirect people’s attentions towards the ‘living God’. (14:15) Nobody likes to be shown up as a fool, especially those who get themselves into that situation. Maybe it’s no surprise that things went sour, with the city’s inhabitants later stoning Paul and throwing him outside of the city walls, believing that they had killed him. (14:19)

That’s quite an entertaining story, though I was surprised (and perhaps you are too) that it is offered as a harvest service reading. What makes it a harvest reading is the call by Barnabas and Paul to direct thanksgiving in the appropriate direction, for the right reasons,

The people in Lystra were like most people in the first century world, and unlike most people in twenty-first century North Shields, at least in one way. When something happened, or when they wanted to explain the way things were in the world, they sought religious answers. Two visitors accomplish an astonishing healing of a man who ‘could not use his feet and had never walked.’ (14:8) They must be gods in disguise! Paul does the talking, so he must be Hermes, spokesman for the gods. Hermes goes around with Zeus, so that must be who this Barnabas really is.

We twenty-first century folk smile at that, but we are little better. In our culture when something happens, or when we want to understand the world, we seldom seek religious or theological explanations. We are satisfied with the material, surface solutions about what causes events, or what holds reality together. First century Lystrans sought to thank the gods. People these days, seldom give a thought to the divine. So they (or we) either put things down to chance or thank ourselves for what we think we have achieved.

The message Paul and Barnabas attempted to share in somewhat trying circumstances, though not a popular one, is relevant both to first century Lystrans and twenty-first century North Shields folk. And that message is what turns these verses into an appropriate harvest service reading.

It’s a two-part message about God and creation. The first part of the message is about what God has done. The second part of the message is about what God is doing. Appreciate both parts of the message and we will be inspired and equipped in our harvest response to God and for others.

First, Paul and Barnabas say, ‘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.’ (14:13) Lystrans looked at the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them and attributed this to the gods. In our own era many people look at the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and attribute it to chance or to an impersonal process, described in terms of a theory of evolution.

To me, that makes us little better off than the people of that ancient city. At least they had an object for their thanksgiving – the gods – whilst those who are without any god have no cause for thanksgiving, for they have no one to thank, or so they believe.

Barnabas and Paul, insist we look and see that there is a living God. This God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. This is the creator God, the one imaginatively envisaged in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, bringing everything into being; the God working behind and through evolutionary processes. This God, not Zeus, Hermes, or impersonal forces, is what has brought everything into being.

The second part of the message, say Paul and Barnabas, is that God ‘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.’ (14:17) In the ancient world religion operated on a basis of quid pro quo – you got things from the gods because you gave things to the gods. Centuries later we find it ever so difficult to tear ourselves away from that viewpoint, even though the gospel message is radically different.

We do not need to give something to God before God gives something to us. The rain comes from heaven, the fruitful seasons come around again and again, we’re filled up with so much food that surely our hearts are also filled with joy; and we have done nothing to earn that. When the living God comes to town, as God does every day, we do not have rush out and make sacrifices in order to get on God’s good side; we will not be flooded from our homes because we’re backward coming forward with praise and thanksgiving. God’s not like that, and that’s really good news.

God has brought everything in creation into being, and God is still at work in creation, showering all sorts of good things upon us, whether we deserve them or not. That is the two-part message that demands our response. And surely a most appropriate time for recognising this is at a harvest service. For at harvest time we’re reminded of our dependence upon the planet that God brought into being, a tiny part of God’s great big creation project. At harvest time we recognise that we are the recipients of all sorts of good God-given things that fill us with food and our hearts with joy.

Harvest time then is first a time of celebration for God’s goodness and generosity. Harvest time is also a time to remember to respect God’s earth today, and its creatures, including humankind like you and me. Yes, God is God’s own witness this harvest time, giving us rains from heaven, another fruitful season, filling us with food and joy; and to that God (and no other) we give thanks and praise. Amen.

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