Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"To an ĎUnknown Godí"

Message preached May 5, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Acts 17:22-31

Order of Worship

            (with remote in hand) Confession time. I have a peculiar habit which drives my family crazy at times. Actually, I probably have many habits that fit into this category, but Iím thinking of one in particular just now. You see, I like to ... ah ... watch more than one television program at the same time. I mean, why - when you have this powerful tool (remote) - be satisfied with limiting yourself to one program, when thereís another show that interests you? Flipping back and forth between the two allows you to catch both.

            The obvious problem with this, of course, comes when there just happens to be more than one person watching television. In our home, there is only one television set, and it doesnít have all those fancy features that let you display more than one station on the screen at the same time - just a remote, which (by the way) constantly wanders off to some other hidden location. Our house is also equipped with a wife and mother who is not a big fan of the boob tube, and says so ... often.

            There is one other problem with trying to watch two programs at the same time. You see, when I try to do this, I often miss the most important parts of both. Sigh. Things would be even worse if we had cable in our home. Gosh, I might try to watch more than two at the same time... So many choices, so little time!

            Life is full of choices, isnít it? Iím not just talking about which television program to watch. There are a multitude of decisions we make every day. Some of those decisions really matter, and making them is not easy. By making good choices we take charge of our lives, we take responsibility. And that is good, isnít it? - taking responsibility. Being in charge of your life. After all, too many people arenít. They donít take responsibility. They choose to flow with everybody else, to not make the hard decisions - which is a choice in and of itself.

            Of course, there is much that happens in life over which we cannot "take charge." Things happen beyond our ability to control, no matter what good or bad choices we have made in our lives. Sitting with Ron and Lois in her hospital room this week, she spoke with us about how she had tried to live a fairly healthy life, but still came this disease called Leukemia. Something beyond our control - its onset, though choices can be made in treatment. Hopefully, we pray, the chemotherapy will do what it has for others. Still cancer is a pretty scarey word, isnít it? So is the word Lupus. Again, another sister-in-the-faith facing something big. How does one "take charge" of that? Donít you wish we could just press a button on the remote control and make it disappear? Change the channel. Turn it off.

            Itís when we face into these things that seem beyond our control that god enters the picture. When I said "god" just now, I meant "god" without a capital "G." Us human beings turn to something bigger than us when we face things beyond our control. Like when farmers in days long, long ago depended upon forces beyond their control - like weather; or when couples depended upon something bigger than their ability to take charge of their lives - like fertility, they turned to a "god" like "Astarte."

            Was "Astarte," a fertility god in ancient Palestine, really able to do what people asked of her. Well, many people believed, yes, and made offerings in order to earn help. We may laugh today at the silliness of turning to something fashioned out of clay, almost like a prehistoric Barbie doll, and worshiping it - thinking it could be of any help. But we canít deny the feelings of powerlessness that lay behind the need for such a god (with a small "g"). That sense of being out-of-control, my friends, is still with us, as even today we face things that appear much bigger than us and our ability to take charge of our lives.

            Now, Iím no expert when it comes to the elaborate system that Greek culture developed for the gods they worshiped. Iíd be hard pressed to name them all - one god who was in charge of this, another in control of that. In fact, Iíd probably mess up and name the Roman version of a particular god. The Romans, by the way, werenít as creative as the Greeks when it came to mythology, or even philosophy for that matter. The Romans were classic borrowers, adopting various things from various cultures and stamping it with a "McRome" seal, sort of like a first century golden arches. To be honest, Rome of that time period bears a number of similarities to American society today. But I digress.

            When the apostle Paul walked through the ancient city of Athens, he beheld the heart and soul of Greek culture. Today, as we look back upon Athens, we see the so-called cradle of democracy, the place where Western Civilization was born, a town whose sons numbered some of the key philosophers to which people still turn. When Paul was there, the glory of Athens was in the past. Its present was filled with people who, while worshiping a past that no longer existed, were enthralled by anything new that came along.

            Walking through the city, Paul saw the "gods" they worshiped, whether they were the statutes that lined the streets of certain parts of town, or the marketplace where their real gods were exchanged. Scripture says that what he beheld deeply distressed him. He was, after all, a follower in the shoes of Moses, who shared with the children of Israel the commandments of the most high God (with a capital "G"), the One true "I am who I am." "You shall have no other gods before me," the first commandment of this God spoke (Deuteronomy 5:6-7). "Do not even try to make some object and think that I am it, worshiping it," commanded the second (Deuteronomy 5:8-10).

            Paul spoke out about what he saw, as he waited for his companions to join him. Itís interesting the reception he received in Athens, as opposed to what he encountered in the last places he visited. In Thessalonika and Beroea, also Greek towns, he was met by an angry response, mostly from those who also followed the commandments of Moses, but who didnít care for this Jesus character about whom Paul preached. In Thessalonika, he was dragged before the town authorities and essentially was kicked out. His companions, Silas and Timothy, remained behind to make connections and tie things up, while Paul moved on to Athens.

            In Athens, people listened. Instead of dragging him to court to face some kind of judge, Paul was invited to speak before the town council. These were a "democratic" people, after all, and they loved anything new and novel. As I listen to this story, though, what I hear is not so much a deep yearning for something much bigger than they were. Instead I detect a desire for entertainment. Paul was a new channel on the remote.

            He spoke quite eloquently before this august body. He had too. These were people used to listening to philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato (or at least the students of these long-since dead men). Paul borrowed a statue he found in town. Oh, not literally. He mentioned the altar which was inscribed "To the unknown god" (little "g"), and took off from there.

            "To the unknown god." What a strange way of putting it. I guess if you want to cover all bases when coming up with a pantheon of gods, you leave one blank - just in case thereís something you forgot. Paul turned that statute into arrow pointing beyond itself. "What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." In other words, "you may not know the real, true, ĎI am who I amí God (with a big "G"), but this real, honest-to-God God (with a big "G") can be known." In trying to make this God (with a big "G") known to the people of Athens, Paul told it like it was. That is, whatever is made with human hands, like some idol - or even some masterful philosophy - is not really God (with a big "G").

            I have a sense those who listened to Paul knew this, deep down. After all, they were smart folks. These werenít country bumpkins (though to be honest, Iíve met some pretty intelligent persons whom someone else might consider a redneck or a hillbilly). This was Athens, a place famous for deep thoughts. The story, as weíve received it in the book of Acts, mentions disciples of the philosophers Epicurus and Zeno as being among the crowd. Neither school of thought placed much stock in those statues. The Epicureans believed in the moment, in whatever felt or tasted good. The Stoics lifted up self-reliance, and a strict morality based upon personal responsibility. The gods (little "g") behind their words, were not really part of the Greek pantheon. You could say that for the Epicureans and the Stoics, their god (with a little "g") was the human self. In other words, "I" am god. Gee, Athens sounds pretty familiar, doesnít it? And you know what? That statue "to the unknown god" (with a small "g") could have been their idol. And that would have made sense, for the human "self" can be just as "unknown" as any so-called "god" (with a little "g").

            To these people, the apostle Paul spoke - as his words speak to us today - of a God (with a capital "G") who can be known, who made everything that exists, who is Lord of heaven and earth, who gives life to every living thing. From one ancestor, whom the real God (with a big "G") created, all human beings are descended. Therefore, by the way, no one race can claim to be better than any other, no town can be the best that ever was - even if it produced some of the greatest philosophers this world has ever known. By extension, folks, with these words Paul also put Western Civilization in its place, since Athens was, in many ways, its birthplace.

            The real, true God (with a big "G") even created us with the desire to seek him out and, as revealed in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, to find God (with a capital "G"). So said Paul to the Athensí town meeting (called the Areopagus). Quoting some of their philosopher sons, Paul said of this God (with a big "G"), "In him we live and move and have our being." "We are his offspring." Therefore, "no deity made of gold, or silver, or stone (or even words, for that matter), no image that is the product of the human imagination" can be the true God (with a big "G"), not even the self. "I" am not God (whether with a little or big "G").

            The true God, the LORD GOD, commands, invites everyone to repent, e.g. to turn to him. For the Lord God will judge the earth on the last day through the One who rose from the dead. Thatís what Paul said to the people of Athens, what God says to us today. Turn, not to some "unknown god" (with a little "g"), but to the living God (with a capital "G") who can be known, revealed in Jesus Christ.

            As nice as those folks in Athens were to Paul - not kicking him out as they did in Thessalonika and other places, but politely listening to what he had to say - itís interesting that very little happened with the gospel there. I mean, out of the soil of Thessalonika, where Paul was treated so badly, grew a church that came to be known for its warmth and faith. We have not one but two letters addressed to those people in the New Testament as weíve received it. But there is no vibrant Christian community remembered as springing from Athens. As far as I know, this is the only place in the Bible where this town is mentioned. (see 17:16-18:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:1, though it did flourish later somewhat)

            There were, however, two persons who responded to Paulís invitation on that day, a fellow named Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris. The question for you and me, then, is this - will we respond like, it seems, most of those good people in Athens, who simply changed the channel and surfed on to the next "new thing," or will we be like Dionysius and Damaris? When push comes to shove, and things in life grow beyond our ability to control, will we turn to the real, true, living God - who is not unknown, but who seeks to make himself known to us every day? Will you turn to God (with a capital "G")? The remote is in your hand, my friend, whatís it gonna be?

For commentaries consulted, see Acts.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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