Some time ago I was playing with a young child outside her home. I noticed that a lizard had slipped down inside one of those new, smooth plastic buckets and couldn't get out ~ a perfect catch. So I brought the bucket over to the little girl and told her I had a wonderful surprise for her. I said, "Look inside the bucket, and tell me what you see." She looked inside, and her eyes got wide and bright. "What is it?" I asked. She said, "It's an alligator!"
I don't think she had ever seen a lizard before, but she had seen plenty of alligators, at least pictures of them in books. "Alligator" seems to be one of the popular words that begin with "A" in the new alphabet books. Lizards don't show up too often in young children's books. So when the girl looked inside the bucket she automatically interpreted what she saw by using her own past, by using what she had already seen, or heard of, in her life. She saw an alligator. And I have to admit, since it was a green chameleon, it did indeed look sort of like an alligator.
How that child interpreted what she saw, however, is how all of us interpret what we experience. Not one of us can explain what we see ~ except by using what we have already seen in our lives. Our descriptions of new things use the images of things we have already seen. So if we have never seen a lizard, but we have seen plenty of alligators, it is inevitable that our first lizard is going to look like an alligator.
The phenomenon probably followed Paul and Barnabas throughout their missionary journeys in the first century, and the story told in Acts 14 is one of the most amusing accounts of this truth. It really is a funny story. The Apostle Paul you may know ~ he usually gets credit for all the missionary journeys. But he almost always traveled with a companion, and it was often Barnabas.
You may not know, however, that Paul was a funny looking man ~ at least according to legend. According to some of the literature of the first and second centuries, Paul simply did not cut too attractive a figure. Apparently, he was small and bow-legged, his eyebrows ran across his forehead and met together; and he had a big nose and was bald-headed. He was, however, according to this same source, also strongly built, sort of stocky, and, of course, he did a lot of talking. Barnabas, on the other hand, looked a bit more dignified, and usually was quieter, letting the great preacher Paul do most of the speaking.
Well, after the two of them had been run out of Iconium, they arrived in Lystra, and there, they met a man who had been lame from birth. Paul saw that this man had faith to be healed, and so he cried out, "Stand upright on your feet." the lame man jumped up and started walking. And then all the townspeople started carrying on in a language that Paul and Barnabas did not speak.
Here begins the great misinterpretation. Paul and Barnabas probably did not know exactly what the townspeople were saying. Maybe they were proud that everyone now was happy ~ many preachers like that result. Maybe they were saying, "Would that everyone acted this way when there was a healing in town!"
What the people of Lystra were really saying, however, was that some of the Greek pantheon had come down to pay them a visit. Remember, Paul and Barnabas were in territory that was foreign. These folks had their own religion. In fact, the townspeople believed it was none other than Zeus, the chief of the gods ~ and Hermes, who was, according to their religion, the chief speaker and messenger for Zeus. So, they said Paul, the speaker, must be unusual-looking Hermes, and this more dignified looking gentleman (Barnabas) must be Zeus himself.
Now, to make things more complicated, there was a local legend of that time, told by Ovid in his book Metamorphoses, about an old and pious couple, who had indeed entertained two strangers one time, who turned out to be Zeus and Hermes. This couple was later rewarded for their hospitality. So the people of Lystra were not going to miss out on this opportunity. They were convinced that Zeus and Hermes had returned to earth in the form of humans again, and this time the townspeople were going to entertain them.
Apparently, it was some time before Paul and Barnabas caught on. As far as they were concerned, they had just witnessed a man being healed through the power of Jesus Christ, and they were rejoicing as well. But Paul and Barnabas got the message when the local priest of Zeus showed up at the gates to the city with oxen and garlands to offer sacrifice.
Then, Paul and Barnabas were devastated and forced to explain more clearly who they were and why they were there. "Hey, we are just human beings like you!" they exclaim. Nevertheless, the Book of Acts says, "they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them."
It's a great story. Paul and Barnabas perform a Christian miracle that gets misinterpreted totally out of their context and into the context of the Greek legend of the time. We have an instance of a people who had never seen a lizard, but they knew what an alligator was. They had to interpret the new experience according to their previous mind-set, according to what they already knew about theology, according to what they already knew about the miracles and God.
It is the same with us today. Whenever anything new comes into our lives, whether welcome or unwelcome, it is inevitable that we will interpret it according to our past. This leads to confusion which is sometimes funny, but also sometimes painful. It is the reason for many of the arguments in the Christian church. Many of us cannot fathom the possibility that God would ever do anything new in our churches. We claim that these new things are not the work of God at all.
Given the inevitability of misinterpretation, it is indeed a miracle that we ever accept or learn anything new. And yet, we do. One of the great miracles in our lives is the ability of God to present new things to us and, at the same time, to give us the ability to understand and interpret them. This, I believe, is the real power of the Holy Spirit.
Think briefly about the scientific world. Scientists spend years in the laboratory discovering new facts which do not fit the old theories. Only after some time has passed are there finally enough new facts to argue convincingly for changing the old theories. Then, a new construct is developed, a new theory enables the new facts to be interpreted.
It is the same with our experience of God. If our ears and eyes are open. God does new things in our lives all the time. God teaches new things about herself, about what it means to follow God, about new places where we might find Jesus Christ. Often, that means we must change our previous image of who God is.
Those transformations are not easy, are they? It is not easy to come to grips with a new thing in our spiritual lives, in our emotional lives, or in our theological lives.
A friend of mine offered me once this insight. The greatest obstacle to our experience of God is our last experience of God. That is, what prohibits us from experiencing God today is yesterday's experience of God. We were so moved by that previous, wondrous experience, that we cannot possibly imagine any other way that God might come to us. The greatest stumbling block to seeing God anew is thinking that he's always going to show up in the way we saw him before. The people of Lystra could not immediately see the power of Paul's message because they interpreted the miracle according to the legends of their own time.
In the Gospel of John, the disciples were with Jesus in the upper room just as he was about to depart from them. What they did not know was that their image of Jesus was about to change. They were accustomed to a physical, tangible Jesus, but Jesus was saying now, "I'm going away. I will pray to the Father and he will send you a new Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said."
This would be a new experience of God for the disciples. They would not be able to approach Jesus and ask, "What should we do now? Interpret this parable for us. Please heal this person we could not heal." They were about to experience God in a new way. Jesus said to them, "You can do it. The Holy Spirit will come to you and teach you."
Thus, the ministry of the Holy Spirit may be far more powerful than we realize, not so much in assisting in ecstatic miracles, but in interpreting the new. The Holy Spirit, says Jesus, remembers the old and teaches the new ~ two things that we may tend to regard as contradictory.
Oh, but what a miracle it is! The ministry of the Holy Spirit holds the old and the new together. It is the Holy Spirit who can translate for us. The alligator in the plastic pail is really a new thing, a green chameleon. These two visitors to your city are not the old gods, they are regular human beings bringing news of the one, true, and transcendent God and Jesus Christ, his Savior.
It is that Holy Spirit who is alive in our churches, too, and in the world. What looks like a new thing which would scare and alarm us is but another way of knowing Jesus. For Jesus comes to us in a new way, in every generation and in every culture. Like Paul and Barnabas, we too are to be filled with the Holy Spirit for missionary and translation work.
Jesus will appear in a new way, but the fruits of his presence will be the same. They are love, joy, peace, forgiveness, power and reconciliation. We are the messengers of that gospel which transcends and speaks to every generation and every time and every place. AMEN.