May 17, 2020
For our scripture reading today, we’re going to jump into the second half of the book of Acts to find Paul in Athens. In this story he is trying to tell some gathered Athenians… who are always looking for the next new thing or new idea… Paul is trying to explain to them the gospel of Christ. They see him as a proclaimer of foreign deities. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Acts 17:22-31
I find this altar to an unknown god an interesting idea. And I can see how well it would have worked in the Athens described here in Acts… a city open to ideas… especially new ideas. Which… let me go ahead tell you here at the beginning… and I don’t say this with any hint of irony or ill-will… being open to ideas… especially new ideas… is a value that I believe in as well. And I’m not doing that preacher thing where I’m constructing the straw man only to knock it down about mid-way through the sermon. I truly am open to listening to new ideas… old ideas… middle aged ideas. I like ideas. I like thought and concept. And a new idea does not even have to be new. It can be a fresh expression of old ideas. Jesus came to fulfill the prophets and the law. Old ideas. Even the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself… not new to Jesus. But through the stories of Jesus, this old idea found fresh expression which is still calling us to newness today.
I recognize that things change and so too do our ideas… and at the same time I understand that those who came before were not empty headed fools and that we of today… of whatever today you happen to be a part of… are not somehow automatically more enlightened. Sometimes we are. Sometimes we aren’t. Remember… today’s enlightenment can always become tomorrow’s shortsightedness.
Things change. If there were no change then that would mean there is no learning. We would not be growing through our successes… or through our failures. You can take that either corporately or individually. No change means nothing that’s happening around us is having any effect on us good or bad. If there is no change then we are neither striving towards our better ideas… nor are we failing as we are consumed and brought low by our lower ideas. .
So… getting back to the altar to an unknown god… I can see the value in having one those around because there is a certain amount of honest humility in coming to such an altar. An unknown god… something beyond what I have decided that can only be… a god of my making… a god of my choosing. An unknown god at the very least admits that there may be something beyond the reality I know to be true. It’s a bit of a break from the ignorant sureness that has such a tight hold of us at the moment where I have to be the expert at all things especially those things in which I have no expertise. An altar to an unknown god at the very least says there may be a god out there that isn’t wholly known or fully contained. A god that still holds more than a few surprises. An altar to an unknown god still allows for mystery.
A few verses earlier, Paul is deeply distressed as he walks around Athens because there are so many different idols… the physical type of idols… the statues of stone and gold and other elements. Paul has no patience for such idols. And he makes a point of it when talking to the Athenians. “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.” Paul is a Jew very much of his own time, speaking against the graven images of his day. This is an old idea, but one that still holds water for his experience. Even though it was an old idea… it was an idea that provoked change. I mean… look around and you will see how those types of idols are pretty well non-existent today. The gods of stone and gold live in museums now… revered as relics and art… and not as expressions of living divine powers in the world. Things change and perspectives shift. The idolatry of today is a bit more nefarious. Instead of a statue or some other type of image that we can create and touch… today’s idolatry is more an idolatry of the heart and of the mind. Today’s idolatry is ideas and concepts that attach and work to change the God whom we know… change to better suit our wants and desires for how things ought to be. Well… not change God per se… but idolatry that clouds our witness… reshapes the known God into the image of the idolatrous idea… or into a warped reflection of the idolater. So we might rephrase Paul to say… “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like us in all that we do and believe, a concept formed by the limited scope and imagination of mortals.”
Marketing… marketing in religion is a great tool of idolatry. The purpose of marketing is to create a perceived need. It caters to wants and desires. The church sometimes has a hard time between discerning between marketing and apologetics… which is what Paul is engaged in here in Athens. I remember a few years back how a group of Christians in looking at how men were not coming to church hit upon the conclusion that the reason behind this was that the church had become over feminized. The Jesus being presented was too wimpy to attract real men to church. The gospel needed to be punched up in the right ways if the church was going to attract more men. We need to appeal to a certain pre-conceived concept of masculinity. So I know… let’s put camouflage covers on Bibles. That’s what men want. Let’s reemphasize the traditional gender roles that were also found in the culture at the time of scripture. In case you’re wondering… yes, these are examples of the aforementioned straw man that preachers like me like to create and then knock down. The church is not here to market God or to sell the gospel in a way that appeals to the largest demographic… the church is to proclaim what God has revealed in Christ and to live out that proclamation as the truth in which it lives and moves and has it’s being.
See… that’s where this idea of an altar to an unknown god is so helpful. The god at the altar doesn’t have to be a different god… coming to the altar I may humbly be proclaiming the unknown of the God I know. I may be proclaiming my openness not only to my own limited knowledge… but also my openness to my unlimited ignorance of those things I don’t know. I am proclaiming that I know only in part what this God has revealed. Even if I give witness to God’s perfection… I do not share in that perfection. There is always more to know about God. There is always more to learn. There is always more to this God to make uncomfortable my comfort. And truthfully… if there wasn’t… then conceptually what is the difference between the small god I would then proclaim and the small god formed by the art and the imagination of mortals?
Paul did not proclaim small god. The quote from the passage… “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’” is a quote originally from a work written hundreds of years earlier by a Greek poet named Epimenides. Originally this line was meant to glorify the immortality of Zeus against those who would make him smaller… who would degrade him to the status of a mere mortal. Such an idea seeks to make the divine either so common or so small as to make the divine inconsequential. It’s an old idea really… to strip the divine of its magnificence and mystery… to drain the wonder from the world… to try to put everything so it fits neatly into the palm of our hand.
Paul, as he makes his argument to the Athenians, uses the phrase to the same effect as Epimenides. The god that is unknown to you is not unknown because you cannot find him in the midst of all your other gods… or that he is far from you… this god is all around you… in him you live and move and have your being. Paul gives to them the same old idea that is also found in Psalm 139.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
You see, I think we set up all manner of altars to an unknown god. But not all altars help us seek after the God we do not know… some altars are meant to contain the god we do not want to fully know… some altars are built in the hope of keeping us safely ignorant. I always read Psalm 139 with two emotions… one of praise of being known so through and through… and one of claustrophobia of being known so through and through. It’s impossible to have some distance from a God in whom we live and move and have our being. That God in whom I live and move and have my being… that God is difficult to ignore… and if I’m being honest… to not know.
Repent says Paul to the Athenians. Repent. Turn away from human ignorance and turn towards the God that is all around you. Come to know the unknown God. Through the revelation that is Christ, God became a bit less unknown. The ideas may not always be new… but they are true and you’ve heard them before. In resurrection… an idea that some of the Athenians scoffed at… in resurrection God revealed the truth of grace and mercy… God revealed that it is love that ultimately changes the world. Those are the old ideas that are to be made new again and again… those are the ideas that other idols try to bury… but their actions are undone by resurrection… those are the ideas meant to find new expression with each passing generation. Those are the ideas that can’t be improved through marketing. But these are the ideas God doesn’t wish to remain unknown. Amen.