Thursday, August 19, 2010

The gods have come down to us...

Is there any use for religion anymore?

As science continues to provide more and more sophisticated explanations for how the world works, there is less and less need to attribute the unexplainable to the gods. Whatever is unexplainable today will likely become an educated hypothesis deducted through rigorous tests using the scientific method. With the astounding knowledge we've gained through science about the earth and our universe, religion is left looking useless and archaic. When it comes to understanding our world better, is religion useful?

It's really interesting to note what the apostles Barnabas and Paul do when local villagers steeped in paganism shout praises to Zeus and Hermes. Somehow, someway, Paul had the ability to heal people. We don't know how he did it, but the stories pile up of his turning lame people into fully alive people. When Barnabas and Paul come to the steep region of Lystra, they heal a lame man who'd been begging at the city gates. Everyone in town knew this guy, and most of the respectable people in town saw the miracle. Their conclusion - their explanation for this unbelievable event? "The gods have come down to us!"

Barnabas and Paul forcefully deny that they are the ancient gods Zeus and Hermes. In fact, the apostles came to town to present good news: the gods of your religion are dead. All the gods of all religions are dead. They have no power, they have no influence, they have no ability. Your religions are dead. But there is one God who is alive, who is good, who cares about you, and he is announcing his new work in the world. In a sense, Barnabas and Paul have come to undermine religion. There is no need to resort to Zeus and Hermes anymore.

As Paul shouts over the mayhem - the local priest of Zeus was parading a bull down mainstreet for the festive sacrifice to honor the miracle - he insists that the God of Israel was the one responsible for all that is good in life. Here's what's interesting: Paul points out that YHWH has purposefully left himself unnoticed for generations and generations. YHWH is invisible, yet he has left some clues to his existence. What are the clues? Just the right amount of rain at the right time, a harvest that provides just enough for everyone through the lean times, a full belly, a happy heart. When you have those four precious things, those are clues of a God you've never met or seen or heard about.

Isn't that odd?

What kind of God is this that he's introducing? An invisible one who leaves scarce clues? Paul will go on to share with the pagans that through Jesus God has come to earth to introduce himself. A God has come down to us... and he's not like anything the old pagans would have come up with. The resurrection of Jesus was the linchpin - it was the one key event that linked Jesus with God, and it was the one event that captured everyone's attention: death was not the final word.

Jesus revealed a God who has chosen to forgive the sins of a world he loves - this is a radical departure from the pagan religions of the ancient world. Paul was introducing a new kind of God that no one had ever imagined - Paul was not introducing a new religion, but a new way of dealing with reality. Death and despair are part of our reality, but the resurrection of Jesus fuels hope for in the face of death and and everpresent despair.

Science is a powerful ally in discerning reality. But Jesus, more than faith in science, is a powerful ally in discerning how to live wisely in this world. Science can't reveal to us what is truth, what is good, what is right, what is noble, what is pure. It comes from somewhere else. In Jesus we get the announcement that God who is the creative force behind our existence wants our life to be marked by forgiveness of sins, works of reconciliation, generosity to the overlooked, diligence that produces beauty, community that lifts each other up. This stuff is beyond the realm of science. Science can explain, but it can't guide.

God has left a lot of his methods and actions unexplained. But he's promised to guide. Leave behind your Zeus and Hermes. Accept what is good in life as a gift, a gift from God to you. Seek better explanations for why the world operates as it does. Look to Jesus as a guide for how to love and serve and lead and heal.

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