SCRIPTURE – Acts 17:16-34 – While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Meeting the Unknown God
May 25, 2014
I remember the toughest audience I’ve ever had as a pastor. While I was in divinity school, a friend asked if I would come speak to a group of people who were apathetic to the idea of religion, sometimes to the point of hostility. I was filled with the invincibility and arrogance of an untested seminary student, so of course I agreed to take on this challenge. And who was my audience? The local gathering of the Cynical Atheists Association? The Indianapolis chapter of the Satan Lovers’ Society? Worse. It was a group of high school freshmen.
I knew I was in trouble when the first question was, “Why does the Bible say sex is bad?” Hmm. How do you explain that the Bible doesn’t say that without giving the group permission to be fruitful and multiply? The questions only got more difficult from there. I remember trying to straddle the line between being true to my faith while still speaking the language of the people to whom I was talking.
That’s the same line Paul is walking today in our scripture. After spending some time in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul winds up in Athens, where he has some time to kill while he waits on his buddies Silas and Timothy to catch up. Paul decides to soak in some of the local culture. After all, Athens was a cosmopolitan city, the center of Greco-Roman culture and intellectualism. This was the home of Aristotle and Plato. This was the location of the Parthenon and numerous other temples.
But Paul, ever the evangelist, is not in the mood for sightseeing, because all the sights he sees make him nauseous. The passage we read today said that Paul was “deeply distressed” by all the idols that he saw around him. He was vexed by these statues that seriously violated his Jewish sensibilities. After all, the first two commandments say “Thou shalt worship no other gods before me,” and “Thou shalt not bow down to graven images,” and both were being broken in plain sight. So Paul is faced with quite a conundrum. What do you do when you are immersed in a culture that goes against your beliefs?
Paul had a couple choices. He could just clam up and deal with it, not make a fuss, but that wasn’t really Paul’s nature. He could grab a can of spray paint and start defiling the closest statue of Zeus or Apollo, but the Athenians probably wouldn’t take too kindly to that. So Paul chooses the middle road by engaging the local residents in conversation. Acts tells us that Paul goes the agora, the Greek marketplace which served as the social hub, and strikes up a conversation with some of the local philosophers about their religion. This was no big deal for Paul, who could hold his own in the headiest of settings. He had rabbinical training. He was conversant in several languages. He was a master of the convoluted run-on sentence. So he was up to this challenge.
But not everyone is impressed. Some of the crowd called Paul “babbler,” which started a centuries-long tradition of preachers being accused of that. He was ridiculed for proclaiming foreign divinities, which technically he was. But his persistence and his persuasiveness get Paul a hearing at the Aeropagus, which was the location of the ruling senate in Athens. Basically, he was taken to the local courthouse, not to be put on trial, but because he was a person of interest.
Paul proceeds to give one of the best examples of a persuasive speech I’ve ever seen. I taught Public Speaking for several years, and Paul hits all the checkpoints that make for a good persuasive speech. He establishes common ground, complimenting the Greek for their visible commitment to religion. He brings in the local culture by referencing the Statue to an Unknown God. He uses their own logic by appealing to their knowledge of creation and belief in the natural power of the divine. Instead of citing Hebrew scripture to them, which would have been completely lost on this non-Jewish crowd, he quotes two Greek poets to make his point. He then says that the true God is bigger than any human-made statue and – here’s where he closes the sale – he says knows who this unknown God is, in the form of Jesus Christ. Bam! That’s an A+ persuasive speech right there.
Was he successful in persuading his audience? Not entirely. Some people scoffed. Okay, maybe I should give him a B+. Some people were converted. And some said, “We will hear you again about this.” When you consider the circumstances in which Paul was preaching and the simmering hostility toward his views that would only be rivaled by a classroom full of high school freshmen, I’d say Paul did a pretty good job. “We will hear you again about this” is sometimes the best response we can hope for.
Imagine how different things would have been if Paul had decided to stay in the synagogue and not engage the locals in dialogue. It would have been a lot more comfortable for Paul to say, “If they want to hear what I have to say, they can come to me.” It was much riskier for Paul to walk into the center of the agora and start debating the Epicureans and the Stoics. But you’re not going to catch any fish by casting your line into a swimming pool. No, in order to catch fish, you have to go where the fish are.
The interesting thing to note is that when Paul ventured into the foreign territory of the Greco-Roman culture, he found they were looking for the same thing the Jews were looking for in the synagogue. Their impulse to worship was right even if the objects of their worship were wrong. Paul says, “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” I love the image of people groping for God. There’s a sense of urgency there, as if looking for a light switch in a dark room. The Jews, the Jesus followers, the Greeks – they were all groping for God.
This pursuit has gone on for centuries. Around the year 400, St. Augustine wrote in his book Confessions, “You have made yourself for us, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” In 1670, Blaise Pascal wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” And in Mere Christianity, published in the early 20th century, C.S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” You see, since time began, we’ve been searching for the unknown God.
And we’re still looking. Now more than ever people have all kinds of things at their disposal that they use to fill the God-shaped hole inside of them, but no matter how much materialism or alcohol or pop culture or busyness you pour into it, it cannot be filled. It can only be filled by knowing God. Paul says to the Athenians that he knows this unknown God, he knows the one thing that can fill the God-shaped hole within us. That’s the same message we need to be sharing today. That’s the hope and meaning people are looking for.
So our job, then, is to introduce people to this God for whom they are searching. But we can’t do that in our own language. In order to gain a hearing, we have to speak their language. And that feels strange to us. How did you react when I said during announcements that it was OK to text or tweet during the sermon? Chances are some of you might have scoffed. “How dare he permit such a secular act in a sacred setting!” You might think such profane ways of communicating don’t belong in church. And you may be right.
But here’s the thing. The internet is the new agora. Facebook and Twitter are the modern marketplaces, the locations where people gather to meet and converse and argue and debate. Cell phones are one of the primary ways we get our messages to each other. The church can draw a line in the sand and say, “If they want to hear what we have to say, they can come to us.” And as soon as we do that, we can put a “For Sale” sign in our front yard. Adapt or die. People are looking for God, but they’re not looking in here. They’re looking out there, so we have to go out there and talk with them in a language they understand, much like Paul did with the Athenians.
In order for the Bible to be a living book, the gospel should sound different every place it’s shared. That doesn’t mean the message changes at all, but the delivery must be enfleshed in a way that speaks to the culture and the people immersed in it. Whether it’s through a tweet, a text, or a face-to-face conversation, we have good news to share! As Paul tells the Athenians, the Unknown God they’ve been groping for is not far from each one of us. We can find that God by shifting our worship from the idols of our own creation to the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, who still dwells among us. We can go into the stores, the little league fields, the fitness centers, the coffee shops around us and say – or better yet, show – that we know this God, and it has made a difference in our lives. We do that because people are watching us to see if all this religion stuff really makes a difference. Do we live in such a way that people want to know more about the hope and joy we feel?
I got a text a few weeks ago – from my 87-year-old grandmother. You don’t know how miraculous this was. Why did she go to the trouble of learning how to send a text message? After 87 years, hadn’t she learned enough? Because it was important enough for her to stay connected with me. If we believe enough in the importance of relationships, we’ll be willing to learn a new language, even if there are parts of it that makes us uncomfortable. Does that mean that all of us have to go out and learn how to text and tweet and use the Google Machine and surf the interwebs? Not at all. But what we are called to do is not limit the ways we imagine the gospel can travel just because we may not be comfortable with it. God continues to do a new thing.
Christians often get a bad rap for being simplistic, anti-science, superstitious, exclusionary. And because of this, people have run to other sources of spirituality to find answers to the questions that I believe only a relationship with God can answer. So do we sit here and wait from them to come running back to us? Or do we go after them, into the cultural marketplaces, to let them know God is just as present with them there as God is with us here? Granted, some may scoff at us. Some may call us “babblers” or worse. But some will say, “We will hear you again about this.” To which we say – or tweet or text – “Thanks be to God!”