TO A GOD MADE KNOWN
| Acts 17:22-31
||Sun, May 12, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Here is a sermon that could use a subtitle. After "To a God Made Known" we should add: "Another in a series of reports from the missionary frontier". Remember them? Perhaps you are old enough to recall those Sunday evenings when the only entertainment in town was the visiting missionaries with their collection of magic lantern slides from China or India. Or maybe you, too, have been captivated by the stories of a Bob McLure or a Bill Taylor as they recounted a doctor's or a teacher's life overseas. Well, then you know what to expect this morning. Open your Bible anywhere near the seventeenth chapter of Acts and that's what you find ... you you find Luke showing slides of Paul's second journey around the the Mediterranean. There are pictures of Phrygians and Galatians, of Philippians and Macedonians, even of Thessalonicans and Ephesians. And, right there in the middle of it all, a picture of Paul visiting the Athenians. Yes, Paul stops in Athens, too. Which is where today's report from the missionary frontier originates.
Athens. Ring any bells? What if I were to say 'Oxford' or 'Cambridge'. How about 'Harvard' or 'Stanford'. Yes, that is what comes to mind in the ancient world when Luke tells of Paul's arrival at Athens. Rome means political power. Rome is the ancient Beijing or Washington, DC. But Athens is the home of thought, the University town, the place where thinkers of all sorts gather to debate and learn. Here is reason to sit up and take notice. Paul arrives on campus ready to discuss what really matters. He stands on the Areopagus, the rocky outcropping beside the Parthenon in Athens. Modern day tourists know it as 'Mars Hill', the site where the ancient god of war was brought to judgment and where, the guides point out, Paul brought gospel truth into contact with philosophical truths. Just last week Alan Reynolds introduced me to a series of tapes called 'Mars Hill Audio' ... tapes that give voice to the ongoing dialogue between Christians and leading thinkers of our culture. Mars Hill is not that distant, after all. The frontier from which this missionary report is delivered differs in an important way from those magic lantern shows. The mission is not half a world away anymore ... nor is it two millenia removed from our time. We stand on Mars Hill - University Hill - and the dialogue is as near as Buchanan Tower looming across the way.
When the PhDs at Athens U get wind of Paul's visiting lectures they laugh: "What does this babbler want to say?" (Acts 17:18). Paul is not exactly treated with respect. On the contrary, he is only given the lectern because he is a curiosity bringing the newest of odd religious ideas from the fringes of the Empire. We recognize the situation immediately. Long gone are the days when Christian Theology was the 'Queen of the Sciences' in academia. These are the days when speaking of faith on the campus is the easiest way to be written off as, at best, a simpleton and, at worst, a fanatic. Harvard law professor Stephen Carter's book "The Culture of Disbelief" describes this new reality. In it Carter - an Episcopalian - portrays the American elite as wanting nothing to do with those whose life is grounded in a living faith in God. His portrait of American culture bears a striking resemblance to life here on a University Campus which marginalizes people of faith. Just ask the UBC students who worship with us to tell you how difficult it is to speak about Christian faith in - or out - of class. On second thought, perhaps you know ... perhaps you know how hard it is to talk about faith at the office or over the back fence or even across the dining table. We live lives of belief in the midst of a culture of disbelief. Missionary expeditions to Phrygia and Galatia, to suburbia and the Bible-belt look far more likely to succeed than the one we find ourselves on here.
Yet Paul is invited to speak ... and so are we. Just when we thought that theology had been cut off from the rest of the academic world for good, we see cracks in the wall. Scientists wonder about the universe, some even daring to posit evidence of God. Philosophers ponder the decline of the modern consensus about what is true and just and good, listening once again to the claims of Christianity. New moral dilemmas send medical researchers and practicioners looking for ethical guidance - including Christian ethics. And students ... students reflect a culture which is increasingly open to discussing spirituality, to conversing about belief. It would be wrong to say that Athens will not listen to Jerusalem, that the University has no interest in the Church. In truth, there is curiosity ... an opening ... an opportunity to speak. So Paul takes it ... and there are things we can learn from Paul, standing alongside him as we are, here on Mars Hill.
The first thing he does is obvious ... even if you are not a professional student of the craft of preaching. He starts where the people are, with their own experience. There is no quoting of strange Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, Paul quotes the philosophers: "For 'In him we live and move and have our being'" (Acts 17:28) he reminds his well read audience. When in Athens, do as the Athenians do. His sermon is all lecture, all logic, all grounded in what his audience already knows. It is a common strategy, one gaining favour again in the preaching circles of our day. I am already signed up for the VST summer school course on "Preaching in a Multi-Media Age". Tom Troeger, who is teaching the course, has asked all participants to bring along a video-tape of a favourite television show or commercial. The intent is to create sermons that speak to people where they are ... people whose way of thinking is shaped no longer by the printed word but instead by the electronic media. From its very beginning, Christianity has spoken the gospel in people's everyday language. And when that people is a University crowd, Paul is ready and able to use the language of the educated classes. Point taken.
Well, Paul's lecture is going along just fine. You can almost see the delighted looks on the faces of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as he makes citations from their tradition (Acts 17:28). More heads nod in agreement when Paul notes the lively and flourishing spiritual life in Athens as signs that Greek tradition and Christian gospel share common ground. "Athenians", begins Paul, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way". And religious they are ... building shrines and temples to every god and goddess in the Greek pantheon ... and more. In fact, just in case they have missed worshipping a god that they have not yet discovered these religious folks have built a holy place called "The Church of the Unknown God" (Acts 17:23). One suspects that it is kind of an insurance policy against offending some short-tempered god unknowingly left without praise. Paul picks up on this apparent craving after God. 'It is not by accident', he says, 'that you leave open the question of other gods with this shrine. For the one God who created all that is makes the world in such a way that the human heart can't help but continue to seek after God' (Acts 17:24-27). See Paul speaking to the crowded lecture hall, pointing to the questing journeys of so many who experiment with Eastern mysticism, immerse themselves in New Age spirituality, experience Aboriginal tribal rites ... always seeking the God who, Paul proclaims, is "not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27). It is a convincing display in front of a skeptical crowd. One imagines that Paul will be invited back to lecture again ... perhaps even given a special Visiting Lectureship in the Faculty of Religious Studies.
But then Paul turns the tables. He turns the tables on his audience ... and on us. Just as he gets to the end of the lecture - just as the sermon draws to a close - Paul drops the bombshell: 'The worship of the gods is over. The idols of this culture no longer suffice.' When all is said and done there is no neat conjunction between the shrines, temples and holy places of Athens and the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end there is a break, a disjunction, a choice to be made. The God experienced by Paul leaves room for no other gods to be worshiped. The religious craving - even addiction - of the Athenians produces gods right, left and centre. It is the same craving that Calvin has in mind when he says that "the human mind is a perpetual factory for idols". Idols, remember them: any thing, idea or institution created by human hands or brains that takes the place of God. You can spot them a mile away ... they are housed in the largest edifices a society constructs. In the middle ages the church itself became such an idol ... its spires denoting its idolatrous power. This culture's idols are different. Our Babel-like steel and glass spires scrape the sky downtown ... cathedrals to the almighty power of capital. At their base you can see the ritual lines of worshippers at the automated teller-priests, receiving the sacramental paper ... leaving duly 'blessed'. And there are other gods, too. Look at the largest building, the biggest government expenditure in every town and city in this country: it is always the hospital. We apparently believe that if only enough tithes are offered at the altar of health care we will be miraculously freed from pain and suffering ... perhaps even death itself. But there is no more powerful idol in our lives than the ever present shrine (or should we say shrines) in every household, rich and poor ... the electronic all-seeing, all-knowing eye that shapes our view of life and of our place in it. The television with its god-like power to bring the world into the living room ... all the while hiding from our view the bulky blinders that it wears and the enforced point of view it delivers. Without even realizing what is happening to us, we find ourselves paying homage to these idols ... we act, vote and speak as if these gods tell the truth about God's world. To which Paul says, "No ... this idolatrous religion of yours, that places its faith in technological prowess, capitalistic ingenuity and financial security, is not of God". In shock we realize that we are no longer standing with Paul facing the crowded lecture hall. Instead we have turned and are facing him, alongside the rest. All of a sudden we see that we, too, belong to the culture of disbelief.
To worship the once unknown god now made known in Jesus Christ is always to be brought up short. The study of philosophy, the study of the natural world, the study of world religions does not prepare us for this Word ... this Word which calls us to turn our lives in a new direction ... to turn away from the idols that have controlled us, enslaved us, bled us dry ... to turn towards the One revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Here is the One in whom the unknown God has been made known ... in whom we discover what is good and just and true. Here is the One in whom "we live and move and have our being" ... here, on a cross ... scorned by the religious, rejected by the scholarly, cast off by the world. In the end, no matter how we cut it, this scandalous Word cannot be spoken as if it makes perfect sense ... as if it can be arrived at logically in Philosophy 101. All our best attempts to speak 'where people are' will bump up against the news that God calls them 'to be somewhere else'. Even as we speak to a multi-media culture in sermons brimming with evocative, fast-paced images our words will flounder on the rocks of a God whose cruciform sales pitch is not what the market expects to hear. It is as if Paul says to the gathering of scholars: "I know how to find the unknown God that you are searching for in your great debates on this Hill. You will find this God on another hill ... a hill of suffering and death defeated by resurrection and life ... a hill on which God's great compassion for even the poorest of the poor is revealed for all to see. This God is indeed not far from each one of us ... but is as close as the poor woman, the slave, the refugee you pass in the market. In descending this hill and in reaching out to them your blind groping for God will be over."
I notice that the lectionary conveniently leaves off the end of the chapter. One suspects that its compilers were not all that impressed by Paul's results: "hearing of the resurrection, some scoffed ... others said, we will hear you again on this matter ... and some joined him, becoming believers" (Acts 17:32-33). But that's it, isn't it. The good news can sound too impossible, too laughable ... or it may seem worthy of another look, another chance ... and, then, there comes a day when we may hear in Jesus Christ a Word of hope worth spreading; a Word of life worth living; a Word of God worth serving. Maybe even a day like today.