The Blessings of Being Provoked
We received a letter the last week of December telling us that Trafton’s car needed to be taken into the dealership because his airbag had been recalled. For effect, the letter had the word Death in big red letters and it certainly got my attention. So I called the number, they told me that the car was not safe to drive and Subaru would send a tow truck at 8 am, pick up his car, tow it to Birmingham, fix the issue, and then bring the car back the next day. We made the first available appointment on January 16th. That morning, I got up, took the boys to school and went home and waited for the truck. At 8:30 I called and asked if they had an update for when the truck might arrive only to be told that I was not in their system. They offered to make another appointment for last Tuesday, they would pick up the car, fix the problem, and bring it back.
Tuesday morning, I took the boys to school, went home and waited. At 7:45 I called to make sure they would be there at 8 like we agreed. For the next 48 minutes I was bounced from agent to agent while they played this horrible music only to be told that once again there was an issue and even though there is the possibility of death we would once again have to reschedule. So we rescheduled for tomorrow, and I headed to the building, but when I got to Quintard I got a call from the towing company saying they were at the house trying to pick up the car. I would later find out that getting the car there was the easy part, I can’t even begin to describe the disfunction and 5 hours and 36 minutes on the phone, bouncing from person to person trying to get the car back.
Here is the thing, I am trying to be a better person, to act like a follower of Christ. I am trying to live in the peace that Jesus offers, but there are times when I find it difficult. There are times that even with the best intentions, that I feel a bit provoked. Maybe you have had a similar experience, maybe somehow, some way, with someone, or in some circumstance, someone poked at you, provoked you.
There are so many different things we encounter every day that we give the power to change our emotional temperature, to cause us to be angry, that draw out some kind of response. Maybe it was when your child was not treated fairly on the ball field. Maybe it is that highly annoying habit of your husband or wife. Maybe it was trying to get the family out the door this morning. Maybe it was someone who cut you off in traffic only to drive 10 miles under the speed limit. Or the person who jumped in front of you line at the grocery store, and you just couldn't believe their audacity. Maybe it was that the cable guy didn't show up when he said he was going to show up. If some of you think that I have your house bugged, let me assure you that we have not made it to all of your homes yet, I am just talking about the human condition.
I believe that you don’t really know a person until you know what makes them angry. You really know what a person truly values, by what provokes them. This morning we are looking at a passage from Acts 17. In the text we find Paul who is in Athens, taking a small break from some of the trouble that he has experienced lately. He was in Thessalonica when a group of Jews formed a large mob and began to riot. So Paul moved to Berea until the Jews in Thessalonica heard about it and came to town to start trouble in Berea as well. Some of the believers helped Paul slip away, and he was hiding out in Athens until Timothy and Silas could join him and make their way to Corinth.
While he is waiting, he begins to wander around the city. But Paul is not looking for a great little local restaurant to find something to eat. He is not checking out the sights, or going to the library or museums. Paul has a heart for people, more importantly Paul has eyes for God. In verse 16 we read: While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Paul is supposed to be hiding out, waiting for the smoke to clear so they can get on with their mission work. But Paul could not be content to hide out and wait. Everywhere Paul looked, he saw people who needed to hear about the love and compassion of Christ. When he looked at the city of Athens, he didn’t see the Acropolis, or the magnificence of the Parthenon. He didn’t see the beautiful gardens. When Paul looked at the city, he was provoked by the idolatry that continued to lull the people into a false sense of security.
Maybe this text sounds a bit out of touch for what we are experiencing today. I mean really, how many idols do you have on your shelf at home? We live in 2019, we are far to advanced to deal with those old and outdated false religions. Idolatry is not on our top ten list of most besetting sins, even thought it was on God's top ten list; number 2. Thou shalt make no graven images. And it was spoken not to pagans but to God's own people.
We are more like ancient Athens than we know. Verse 17 mentions the marketplace, the agora was a bustling avenue full of kiosks, conversations, and the first century equivalents of side walk cafes. A Greek poet once wrote, "You will find everything sold together in the same place in Athens. Figs, witnesses to summonses, grapes, turnips, pears, apples, roses, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, lambs, water clocks, laws and indictments." You know what that sounds like? Amazon. In Athens they went to the agora. In America we go on-line.
Look at verse 21. All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. You know what that sounds like? Facebook.
I truly believe that one of the reasons we are dealing with urban blight in the Model City is because of idolatry. Augustine said idolatry is worshipping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshipped. I know we don't bow down and worship idols, but there is a new idol in our world and we have welcomed it into our lives.
Egbert Schuurman said that the new religion of our cyber world technism. The high priest is the computer. And the god on the throne is you, and me. Don’t believe me? How many of you checked Facebook this morning before you talked to anyone in your house? How many of you look at your phone before you even get out of bed? Leonard Sweet writes of a digitized future; When our appliances talk to us and to each other. They will know exactly how strong we like our coffee, how burnt we like our toast, how al dente we like our vegetables. Everything will be ours how we like it, when we like it, and where we like it. Every detail will be within our control. We will seem "godlike" in our own eyes, but in reality we will just be nothing more than little godlets with bumper stickers on our cars which read, I couldn't have done it without me.
Paul was supposed to be hiding out in Athens, but he couldn’t because he was provoked because their gods were too small. If we are going to really love this city we need to admit that our gods are even smaller. Our communities are dealing with urban blight because we have not only become accustomed to the brokenness and idolatry in our communities, we are participating in the idolatry. We have become blinded to our surroundings and we are no longer provoked to action or provoked into the right action.
Let me ask you, when you feel that you have been treated unfairly what do you do? When you feel that something is wrong, that something is not the way that it should be and you are provoked to do something, what are you provoked to do? Last Tuesday when I was sitting at the house, waiting on hold for the next customer service agent, I was thinking about all of these witty little comments that I could put on Facebook or other social media. When I see my sons being unfairly treated by a coach or a teacher or whoever I want to find the perfect meme to post to Instagram that will be passive aggressive enough to say what I want to say without causing to much backlash. I become a keyboard commando, but what really changes? What have I done besides add to all of the cyber-noise that already exists.
We have spent this month talking about Modeling Love in a city that is dealing with urban blight and decay. But really what we have been talking about is responsibility and ministry. Where does ministry begin? Ministry does not begin to this city with Jeremy Houck, Ruth Burleson, and the other members of our thinking about different ministries or activities for you to be involved with. Ministry always begins with the provoked hearts of the people of God. Ministry always starts with your heart; and if your heart is not engaged, if your heart is not agitated, if your heart is not grieved, it doesn't matter how many great ideas we come up with. It doesn’t matter how attractive the building is, how beautiful the music is, how powerful the preaching, because if your heart is not provoked you won’t participate. And neither would I.
Paul looked at the city and was troubled because the city was full of idols. Paul knew that every human being is, by our very nature, a worshipper. We are either giving your life to the worship of the God of Creation, or you're giving your life to the worship the creation. You're either acknowledging His existence, or you're placing yourself on His throne. Worship always has an object to direct it’s affection. And so, when Paul looks at his culture his heart is grieved that everywhere he looks, what he sees is not worship of God, but the worship of something much smaller, something insignificant.
Paul looked at the city and saw the people who were created to worship God, choosing the selfish and easy things. They were worshiping pleasure, power, possessions, and control. And that provoked him to do something that would have a lasting impact on the world. When we become keyboard commandos or write a sharply worded tweet, all we do is move from one fake moral outrage to the next. But Paul had a heart for God which means he had a heart for the people God loved.
Paul was provoked to do something, He was willing to tell the truth even if it meant he was going to be mocked, thought of as being stupid, or misunderstood. Paul was not interested in protecting himself, or hiding his faith. Paul knew that the truth was far greater than what someone would think of him if he declared his belief. Verse 18 says: A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
The term the philosophers used for Paul actually means "seed picker." The picture is a bird that is just sort of walking around like a bird does, picking a seed here, picking a seed there. It's not a compliment. They are saying Paul is just grasping for whatever you can get, and it makes no sense whatsoever. But Paul was not seed picking, He was telling the people in Athens who were worshiping a small god, about the Creator and Redeemer of Mankind.
But Paul was telling them the truth about God. First, in verse 25 Paul told the Athenians that we need God. God doesn't need us.
There seems to be this idea that God somehow needs us if He is going to exist. We think that God needs us to fill His buildings, to put money in His collection plate. That God is somehow stuck and without our help, He can’t accomplish anything. But that’s a lie. Any picture of God that shows Him needing anything is not an adequate concept. God doesn't need our community. Genesis pictures God in community with the Son and Spirit before humans were ever created. God doesn't need our worship. In the Revelation John saw the throne of God high and lifted up and surrounded by a host of heavenly beings who worship him day and night forever. God doesn't need our faith. Not believing in Him doesn't diminish His Goddness one bit.
He doesn't need us to laugh at His jokes or cry at His stories. God created us because it is what He wanted to do, or to borrow one of Paul’s phrases from Ephesians, It was the pleasure of his will. God didn't need our love, He wanted to show His. He didn't need our community, He wanted to share His community with us.
Then Paul tells Athenians that God is judge. We don't like to talk about the fact that God is the Judge, unless we are telling some self appointed god not to judge us. I mean we like the idea of a father in heaven, but what we really want is a grandfather in heaven; someone who is to old to actually hear what we are saying or see what we are doing and is only interested in if we are having a good time.
We forget that if God doesn't have the capacity to judge, then He doesn't have the ability to defend. If God lacks the passion for justice, then He doesn't have the compassion to care. If God lacks the authority to rule, then He doesn't have the power to save. When it comes down to it we simply have to take God for who God is. It is for our benefit that God is the basis of justice, because there will come a time when we will be victimized or oppressed and God’s judgement and justice will set things right.
And if God is the judge then we don’t have to carry the responsibility to be needlessly condemning, needlessly judgmental. We don’t have to carry the burden of being self-righteous and offensive in the face of lost people. Instead we can be engaging, loving, compassionate, and kind. We can live our lives with the understanding that we have only been saved from our own idolatry by the grace of Christ.
If we are truly going to Model Love in the Model City we need to be provoked. Being provoked is not a hassle; being provoked is not an obstacle to an otherwise enjoyable life; being provoked is a blessing of God's grace. Because when you're provoked, you attach your life to the most significant work in the universe ………… redemption.
Maybe you are provoked to do something, you just have no idea what to do. So I am going to give you a little homework: On the sheets that were passed out to you this morning, there are two sections. The first section is numbered 1-5. After you get home I want you to think about 5 people that you already know, 5 people that you work with, drink coffee with, 5 people that you are in your little corner of the world that don’t know Christ. And let’s just be honest and admit that just because someone goes to a building on Sunday mornings at 11:00 does not mean that they know Jesus. Being religious is a shadow of the relationship that God offers us.
After you have thought about 5 people you already know and have a relationship with them, write their names in these blanks, because this is your mission field. These are the people that you are going to show kindness, compassion, and mercy. These are the people that you are going to try to deepen your relationship with so that they will see your love for God and ask you about your faith and hope. These are the people that you are going to pray for, the people you are going to ask God to give you opportunities to encourage and support.
In the second section you will see a tic tac toe hard with a house in the middle. This represents your neighborhood and your house in in the middle. Everyone of us ask about the neighborhood when we are looking for a place to live. We want to live in a safe neighborhood and after we move in, we totally ignore our neighbors. January 12th 2016 police entered the home of Lucie McNulty in Wells Maine and discovered that Mrs. McNulty had passed away. According to the coroner’s office she had died two years before anyone thought to call the police , who found her body. That’s a travesty, and we were created to do better.
So, in your little grid I want you to write down the names of your neighbors. Then I want you to be friendly to them, wave when you see them in the yard, pick their garbage can up out of the middle of the street, offer them some cookies, learn their names and the names of their children or grandchildren. Then pray for them, pray that they will see your love for God and ask you about your faith and hope. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself if you have no idea who your neighbor is.
The truth is that we live in a city that is dealing with Urban Decay and Urban Blight. But we have been placed in this city as a reminder that God is not done with us yet. As a matter of fact I am not so sure that God has even begun to bless this city and this church. But until we are provoked into action, our community will continue to spiral into decay.
This morning God is calling you to look at our town, to look at our community, to think about five people, to invest in your neighbors and once again Model Love in the Model City.
Maybe this morning you realize that you have contributed to the blight in this city, by worshipping a god that is too small. This morning God is calling you to come to know Him, the real Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the universe. If you need to come and lay your sins at the foot of the cross, will you come……