Sermon on Acts 17:16-31, for the 6th Sunday of Easter 2020 (A), "From the unknown to the Kon

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. The Apostle Paul was engaging in what we might call “street evangelism” in our reading from Acts 17. Paul was in Athens, Greece, the famous ancient city known in part for its great philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Paul found opportunities to speak to Jews, people at the local markets, God-fearing Gentiles, and here he goes to the Areopagus or “Mars Hill”, and found the debaters and local armchair philosophers. Everywhere he talked about faith in the True God. 

Paul had to choose a different starting point with this crowd because they didn’t share the common background of the Old Testament, as the Jews and God-fearers did. Paul was provoked in his spirit--he was passionately upset--by all the idols he saw there. Worshipping false gods lowers our human dignity, because it’s a sham, and God’s first commandment is that we shall have no other gods before Him. It should stir up our emotions when we see false gods worshipped or honored around us.  Paul was conversant in the Greco-Roman culture. He quotes their own poetry to bring up questions about spirituality and to search out the One True God. We also should pay attention to our culture and world, to find bridges or connecting points for spiritual conversations. Maybe we notice something that vaguely echoes the truth, and reveals a spiritual theme buried in the culture, or even a bold and profound lie that invites a challenge. A line in a popular song or movie, a storyline, or slogans we hear from leaders and celebrities. It could be the appetizer for an interesting and meaningful conversation with a friend who hasn’t thought much about God or spirituality. There’s connection points everywhere to be found.   

Paul zeroes in on the altar to the unknown god. They made sure to cover all their bases! Don’t risk offending the god you forgot to worship! There were 12 main gods and goddesses that the Greeks worshipped, but a host of smaller supernatural figures. Their gods and demi-gods were kind of like the Marvel or DC Comic superheroes popular in movies today. Like overgrown super-powered humans, with petty fights and quarrels. But none had absolute control. Belief in many gods is called polytheism. Worship of one god is called Monotheism. So the altar to the unknown god seems like a creative solution to appease all the gods! That is a problem for the polytheist--the conflict of the gods and their ever-changing purposes. 

Why does all this matter today? Today, one of the fastest growing new religious groups are the “Nones.” No, not the women dressed in black and white who live in a nunnery, but N-O-N-E-S, the people who answer that their religion is NONE.  Nones include atheists, who don’t believe any god exists; agnostics, who say they don’t know if a god exists or who that god is; and the rest are mostly people who abandoned any religious affiliation. They are roughly 1 in 4 Americans, according to the Pew Research Forum. They are your neighbors and co-workers and family. A minority are atheists, which means that most of the rest subscribe to the “unknown god.” They are content with a question mark next to their concept of god, and aren’t particularly motivated to find the answer. They report that they left religion because they question a lot of religious teachings, and they object to the stances that various religious organizations have taken on political or social issues. This is a general picture of the Nones. 

So a growing number of people today are ok with remaining skeptics about the most important questions of existence--”how did we get here? Who made us, if anyone? Is there a god or no? Do we have a purpose? Can I know God? Do I WANT to know Him?” Paul found it disturbing in his day and age when people were worshipping the unknown god. We should not rest easy--we should be disturbed, for love’s sake--that people are ready to ignore the  questions  of meaning and purpose today and hang a question mark by God. Not only are our souls and eternity in the balance--but spiritual emptiness crushes our joy and purpose in life, or sends it in dangerous directions. So we should be aware of these Nones around us, and carry God’s love in Christ to them, following Paul’s example. 

The Athenians invited Paul to speak about these strange ideas they had never heard of. So Paul offers to lead them from the unknown to the Known.  He begins by setting the True God apart from all others. Many people ignorantly lump the God of the Bible in with all the ancient gods and goddesses, ancient and modern, without recognizing how different they are. As believers in the Bible, we are used to thinking that only God is eternal. But did you know that polytheistic religions, ancient pagan philosophers, and even most astronomers, right up to the time of Albert Einstein, believed that the universe always existed? But Einstein made the uncomfortable (for him!) discovery that nearly everyone believes now--the universe is NOT eternal--it began to exist at a certain definite point in the past, and it won't last forever. This discovery still propels scientists and others into a search for the unknown. 

But long before Einstein proved the universe was not eternal, and long before ancient pagans ever contemplated it, from the very first verse of the Bible, it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” A bedrock Biblical idea is that God is eternal, not the universe. It seems like a small point, until you consider that all the gods and goddesses of the various polytheistic religions were understood to exist INSIDE an eternal universe, or were part of the universe itself. But the God of Israel is unique in being OUTSIDE and apart from the world He created. This is what Paul expresses to Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” God is not held or contained by the cosmos, but He made it. And He is not like all the pagan gods who depended on humans for sacrifices or other things; the True God does not require us to exist--He created us out of His love and to display His glory. But He needs nothing from us, and is not diminished without us. 

Paul continues: “26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place. You should memorize Acts 17:26 memorized--God made from one man every nation of mankind. This has far-reaching consequences. It leaves no room for any racial superiority or racism. The Bible, again, from the very first chapter, shows the creation of all mankind from a single man and woman, Adam and Eve (whose name means “mother of all the living”). We’re all their descendants, which means that racism is a grotesque distortion and hatred of our brothers and sisters, all who are made in God’s image, male and female. 

Some people have been so daring and wicked as to try to justify their racism from the Bible. Inventing teachings or grossly twisting the Scriptures. The movie “Harriet”, that came out recently, about Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, sharply contrasts true Christianity against the abusive lies of false religion. Not only religion has been used to justify racism--scientists and secularists also made attempts. The website humanzoos.org hosts a one hour mini-documentary on the history of scientific racism in America that is rarely taught in our history lessons. Again, the point is that the Bible has long held the Truth that combats the greatest evils of society. But humans are continually hiding the truth from our eyes, distorting it, or denying it. 

Most of Paul’s speech was about God as the unique Creator, and we His special creation. But he turns to how we can KNOW God instead of regarding Him as unknown. The first part of his speech is what we call “1st Article” theology, because the 1st Article of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds are about God as Creator. But then Paul turns to how God has made Himself Known in our time, by sending Jesus His Son, to call all mankind to repentance, and to exercise His final judgment. How has God proved that Jesus is His chosen Judge of the living and the dead? God proved who Jesus was by raising Jesus from the dead. This is “2nd Article” theology, about the Son of God. 

Paul moved from the generic concept of a God who created everything, to WHO God is--Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. And here is where our human responsibility enters in. All of our sin and wrongdoing must be addressed. God calls everyone to repent-- humans the world over--there is no excuse for ignorance of God or denial. We’re liable before God for judgment. But Jesus Christ came to take that judgment upon Himself, so that all who come to Him by faith, are spared the judgment. It’s not enough to believe in a generic unknown god--the unknown god of creation, or the nameless god of civil religion. Such an unknown god does not mediate or reconcile or answer the question of our guilt before a Just God. By definition we can know almost nothing of an unknown god. That’s not satisfactory, and that’s not the situation we are left in. We need to know WHO God is, and how our relationship to Him is repaired and assured. And God has given us intelligent minds and hearts made to yearn for Him, so that He can come and reveal Himself to us.  

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead proved that He alone, among all the founders of religions in the world, has true authority. No other founder of any major world religion claimed both to be God in the flesh, and to have risen from the dead, with eye witnesses to prove His death and resurrection. This makes Christianity the most historical of all the religions, because whether it is true or false depends on events in human history that were seen by eye-witnesses! The people of Athens were puzzled and amazed by these things, which they probably were hearing for the first time. Some believed and some didn’t. Others wanted to hear more. People today will still find this amazing, and may respond in much the same way. Most other world religions don’t depend on historical claims at all in the same way. But Jesus is the Known God. God is not unknown, but has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. This truth confronts us, as it did the Athenians on Mars Hill, and people can either deny that truth can be known, and choose not to know, or they can encounter the Living Lord Jesus, who still lives and reigns from heaven today. His Word and Teaching stands up as profound truth still 2,000 years later, and has transformed the world in countless ways for good. Many have tried to distort or twist His message for evil, but whatever is not from God eventually fails, and the Truth prevails. To this Lord Jesus, the Known God, be all our worship and honor and praise! Amen

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