Sunday, May 1, 2016

Athens: Building Bridges: Sermon on Acts 17:16-34

Good morning, brothers and sisters!  Over the last few weeks, we've tracked Paul from Philippi to Thessalonica to Berea... and now, he's left there on his own, sailing into port (Acts 17:15). He knows Athens' reputation – it's the intellectual capital of the world. Paul's hometown of Tarsus was like the little Athens of Cilicia; but this is the big one. A place of pure philosophy, pure knowledge, refined culture. 

So imagine Paul's dismay when he gets there and sees more idols than he's ever seen, with their obscene body parts displayed in broad daylight, with blind superstition ruling the day. No wonder Paul gets so upset (Acts 17:16)! That reputation, and yet all the civilization of Athens couldn't cure the city of idolatry and corruption? These people need what they don't have.

So Paul gets to work – on the Sabbath, preaching in the synagogue, but the rest of the time, he's in the porches around the agora, teaching and discussing with local philosophers (Acts 17:17-18). Some say he's just babbling – that he's got nothing new to say, that he's just recycling bits and scraps of ideas he doesn't even understand. Others say he's got some foreign gods he's trying to pass off. 

Paul catches enough attention that he gets hauled in front of the Areopagus, the ruling council. You know who else in history got taken to the Areopagus for the same reason? Socrates, if the name rings a bell. The Areopagus was responsible for certifying new teachers in the city, and so they want to hear Paul out, find out what his message means and whether it's good for Athenians to hear, whether he has anything to contribute (Acts 17:19-21). And so they make the blessed mistake of actually asking Paul to open his mouth – something Paul was never too reluctant to do!

But before we get to what Paul says, let's pause a moment to think about how he says it. Does Paul lay into them right off the bat? Does he stand around quoting the Bible at them? No! Paul's message is very biblical – the whole shape, even some of the phrases – but he says it in a way that fits who he's talking to. Even though they don't know the Bible in the slightest, he has a message that's just right for them. He uses their kind of language – more philosophy than Bible. He talks about God in a way they mostly recognize. 

He starts his speech the right way, by addressing the “Men of Athens” (Acts 17:22). He says things they can fairly take as a compliment, at least at first. He presents himself as filling a need they know they have: for knowledge of an admittedly unknown god. And for as long as he can, Paul's emphasis is on common ground. Most of what he's saying are things the Stoics, the more popular philosophers there, would have agreed with right off the bat. Ultimately one divine reality responsible for all things? Check! Near to us? Check! Not living in man-made temples? Check! 

Just like preaching from the Old Testament in the synagogue, Paul wants to find common ground with these elite cultured pagans of Athens. So he quotes popular pagan poets to back up his points, and he shows them how their best beliefs, methods, and values lay the ground for the ideas he's come to share.

Paul never compromises his message. There's nothing he says that isn't what Paul really does believe, and what the Bible really does teach. It's shape is thoroughly biblical, even some of the wording bears the Bible's touch. But Paul tells it in a way that, without any compromise, shows that it has relevance here – that the message isn't just for Bible-believing Jews, but for philosophical Greeks. Not just for people like Paul, but for people like Dionysius and Damaris (Acts 17:34). He doesn't have to make it relevant by changing it; but he does choose to reveal it as relevant by telling it the right way. He chooses to build bridges.

You know, too often, we don't even try. Let's face it: by and large, we do not live in a Christian culture. With people of any age, we can't assume that they have a basically biblical worldview already. We can't make the assumption that they understand words like 'sin', 'repent', 'faith', even 'Jesus' the way we do. We can't make the assumption that they share our basic outlook on life at all. We can't assume they share our culture or subculture, that they live lives like ours, that they see the world the way we do. So much of our evangelism falls on deaf ears because it's spoken in words that just don't translate! The longer we've been immersed in our church cultures, the more we get used to speaking 'Christian-ese.' But that's not the primary language of America – if it ever was, it sure ain't now!

If there's one lesson to learn from Acts, it's that the gospel is for everybody. It's for Jews and Greeks and Samaritans and Romans. It's for shepherds and farmers and prison guards and politicians and, yes, even ivory-tower eggheads. (I'm tempted to misquote Paul here by adding the words, “of whom I am chief”!) 

But if we want to share the gospel well – and we absolutely should – then we have to realize that, while the basics are the same, the angle isn't. You want to share the gospel with a farmer? Build bridges with the farmer's world, with the farmer's beliefs and practices and values; translate the message into his language as far as it goes; show how what you've found fits his needs, completes what's unfinished in his life and work. Same goes for evangelism with philosophers – Paul shows the way. 

And the same goes all around here. Build bridges with shopkeepers, with stay-at-home moms, with high school students; with Muslims and atheists and, far more plentiful, a 'post-churched' world of burnt-out people who think they get the gospel but have scarcely scratched the surface. Know what they believe and cherish and do, build on that, speak into that, and drive the story of Jesus over that there bridge!

That's how Paul does things here. That's our model for evangelism. And it does work – maybe not a massive harvest, but the field stays open for labor, and the light comes on in the mind, heart, and soul of one of the hundred or so elite Athenians who run the city – that's a good start! 

But what, exactly, is Paul saying? Does his message have anything to teach us? I think so. Let's start where he starts: he's seen how very religiously obsessed the Athenians are (Acts 17:22). He finds the superstitious style of it distressing – he must be struggling to keep calm, surrounded by all these obscene idols and the way they just disgust him – but he gives credit wherever he can: they're very concerned to know their gods.

And yet, as he's stopped and studied their monuments, he's noticed an altar simply marked, “To an unknown god.” Maybe he learned the backstory in the marketplace from one of his dialogue partners. As the legend goes, a few centuries before, a terrible plague struck Athens. They knew it must be a warning from one of the gods – but which one? Which of their many, many gods was unhappy with them? Who'd they forgotten to invite to the party? So they'd made their way through the list. They made sacrifices to each and every god they had. And still the plague stayed. None of the gods was taking credit! So the philosopher Epimenides, visiting from Crete, had an idea. He led a flock of sheep into the heart of the city and let them loose. Wherever one of them lay down, he built an altar, figuring that some god was lurking around. And he dedicated the altar to whichever god happened to be there, whoever it might be. The altars were marked, “To unknown gods” – it was their way of saying, “Hey, not sure who you are, we haven't been properly introduced, but we're sorry you've been left out – and if this is you, we'd like to reach out and start a relationship. We don't like leaving any bases uncovered.”

Six centuries later, here stands Paul. And Paul turns around and tells them, “Yeah, you're right – you missed one. You may pride yourselves on your knowledge, but at least you know that there's a god you don't know. You've tried to worship him, you've tried to open up a relationship with him – well, he's answering that prayer. I'm about to fill you in, teach you the knowledge you know you lack.” So far, so good – though he might rub them the wrong way a bit when he tells them that the top god, whom they think they know, is the one they've left unknown (Acts 17:23).

This god, the one the Athenians left unknown, the one they forgot and hastily threw in alongside all the familiar names – well, he's “the God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). It wasn't a committee job; it isn't divided up into jurisdictions, like in popular Greek myths where Zeus gets the sky, Poseidon gets the sea, Hades gets what's down below, and so on. No, this God is the Creator of all things, and he's Lord of all things. He's got full jurisdiction; he doesn't leave room for Poseidon, for Hades, for any of the jokers on Mount Olympus – or for any of the trendy American gods of Work, of Leisure, of Family, of Bank Account, or the rest, Paul might remind us.

The philosophers have been inching their way toward this Creator God. At their best, they've figured out a fair bit about him – that he exists, that he's transcendent, that he designed all these things around us. But he's still unknown to them. This God “made the world and everything in it,” and “he does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25). He isn't an idol we can store away in a building and keep him there. He isn't a little god we can limit to one specialty, one place, one day of the week or of the year. God does not live in a box we can make or devise. He is not trapped in this church; he is not limited to Sunday; he does not wait around for us before he goes off and gets to work in the world. He gets there before we show up, he sticks around after we stay.

And this God doesn't need us. We don't serve him for his benefit, as though he'd be missing out on something if we left his temple alone – as if he has incentive to bargain with us! Of course, that's often how the Athenians treated their gods. And sometimes, it's how we treat the real one. We think we can bargain with God – “Can I bribe you to do this if I promise this? After all, you need that, don't you?” 

But that's not the way God works. He doesn't need our temples – our big, fancy buildings. That's not where he lives. He doesn't need our money. He doesn't need the service of our hands – or the words of our lips. God does not need you. If he uses you, if he seems to rely on you, it's because he loves you and chooses to involve you. But we can't contribute anything he doesn't already possess, because “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

In fact, God's plans do not depend on the lay of the land. They are not helped or hindered by the way we've shaped the world. Maybe that seems like an odd thing to say. But listen to this: “And he made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” – so from a single start, he spun out all the diversity we see; no matter where we go, we're meeting people whose start is like ours. The Athenians may have had a myth that their ancestors sprang from the special soil of their homeland, but Paul reminds us that all people – Jews, Greeks, Samaritans; Americans, Russians, Syrians, Nigerians – we all are made of the same stuff, part of the same global tribe. There's nothing about our essence, our nature, our heritage, that makes us worth more than anyone else.

And God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). In other words, you didn't build that; Somebody Else, Somebody Heavenly, made that happen. God isn't just the God of nature; God is the God of history. He drew the atlas. All the borders of all the empires in time and space – God holds it in his hand. He drew it once, he's been redrawing it every since. 

To every people, every nation, he's given time. America didn't gain independence by her own strength; he drew her borders, he let us have this place and time – and what the future sketch will look like, how our boundaries will look and how long our period runs, who can say? He gave the same to the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires in the Old Testament – they thought they ruled by their own strength, that their conquests were their doing, but it was all and only by God's permission and decree. And when their time was up, it was up, and they were held accountable for their arrogance. The same for the Athenians – the Greeks maybe once ruled the world, they could take pride in their heritage, but it wasn't Athena who blessed them; it was the God they forgot to know, the God who'd raised up Athens in her time and given it over to Rome in times since.

God does not depend on the lay of the land; he decides the lay of the land. This system is in his hands. It runs as long as he decides, and then he moves it, changes it, turns it over, however he likes. That's not an endorsement – but it sure does give us hope. The trends of history are not inevitable. God turns them how he pleases, in his time. Every nation, every regime, every trend is on a leash – and so are we and all our ways. 

Some of Paul's dialogue partners, the Epicureans, thought that the gods were so lofty that they couldn't possibly take an interest in how things run all the way down here. But Paul has news for them: the Creator may be exalted enough not to need us, but he's still interested! He still cares!

And, Paul tells us, because he cares, he's actually arranged the course of history – the times and shapes of every people and nation – so that we can fulfill our purpose. And that purpose is “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). The image here isn't one of looking around with a flashlight; it's one of a guy stretching out his arms in the dark, shuffling around and feeling for what he's trying to find. 

In our sin, we may have blinded our eyes; we may be grasping in the dark – but we're searching. And because he wants to be found, God chooses to be nearby. He doesn't have to be – he's higher than the highest heavens – but in kindness he always chose to be in our reach, even within reach of the ancient Greeks – and certainly within reach today.

So how can the Athenians accuse Paul of preaching a “new god”? He's talking about the Creator, the one who made the whole universe! What's so new about that? Why do they say he's preaching some “foreign divinity”? This God isn't foreign – he's commemorated as an Unknown God on an altar that was already here, and he's not far away from any place, not even Athens. Paul isn't the one preaching new and foreign gods. The Athenians are the ones who've introduced 'new' and 'foreign' gods! That's what Paul's saying. He's turned the tables on their accusation.

Anybody ever see the movie ...And Justice for All? Came out in '79, starred Al Pacino. Pretty profane film, but there's a well-known scene. Pacino's character gets coerced into defending a corrupt, guilty man – a judge, in fact – and by the end, he can't take it anymore. Let the consequences be what they may, he isn't going to let his client get away with it. So in his defense speech, he tells the whole court that his client belongs in jail, because he's completely guilty. The trial judge reprimands him, tells him he's out of order. And Pacino's character yells back those famous words: “You're out of order! You're out of order. The whole trial is out of order!” 

In so many words, that's what Paul is saying. “You think my god is new, that he's foreign? Your gods are new, your gods are foreign. You're out of order! Your gods are out of order! This whole system is out of order!” And that's the essence of our response today: Those in our culture say that our faith is unsuited for the time, that our God is far removed from the realities of everyday life? No: your time is is what doesn't fit; your so-called everyday life is what you've made far removed from God and from your own selves. Your idols, like the idols of Athens, have just gotten in the way.

After all, what's the point of idols but to make distant gods near? But we never needed idols to have this God near – not now, not in Paul's day, not even in the days of the Athenian plague. The one God – the God who made the world and all its parts, the God who sets times and borders for all nations – he's nothing like an idol (Acts 17:29). How's an idol going to make him closer, when it's got nothing in common with him? He isn't made visible through what shines, like gold and silver poured and pounded into familiar shapes; he's made visible through what lives and moves in him, what reflects him – “for we indeed are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). What on earth most reveals God? Not a statue, not an idol, not a temple planned by architects. But his offspring, those who reflect his life and his motion and who were molded from his image – us.

God isn't seen in idols, but in us. Seventy-four years ago, C. S. Lewis preached a powerful sermon on “The Weight of Glory,” and he remarked that “there are no ordinary people. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” And at the conclusion, Lewis stressed that “next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” 

Think about that: You don't need an idol to see God, because that's what you have neighbors for. If you want to understand the character of God, if you want to find God close-by, you don't need a statue, or a painting, or a big stained-glass window, or bright lights, or a fog machine... not even the sun and moon and stars. More than in the heavens above or the earth below, more than in any of our best art or literature, you can just turn your attention to Tia. Or Bill. Or Wanda. Or Grace. They – we – are God's offspring, stamped with his image, a living declaration of his nature and character on earth.

So God isn't like things we make, things we shape, things we control. God isn't something shapeable or controllable – he's living, vibrant, stooping into reach not by becoming idolizable but by imprinting himself on human life. You never needed an idol to make God plain; you had each other. The people of Athens had each other – so there was never an excuse for all those statues and shrines. And less so now that God's done one better.

God used to put up with all those things, just bear them. But God is a God who redraws the map. And a few decades before Paul gave this speech, God changed the spiritual geography completely. And in light of what he's done, the way he's made things clearer, drawn even nearer, he wants the Athenians – and us – to turn around, change our minds, learn and know the truth (Acts 17:30). They may have Paul in their judgment-box this day, but there's another day picked out already – and then each and every Areopagite and each and every Athenian and each and every son or daughter of Adam will stand in the box. This message isn't abstract theory, a good dinner conversation or a topic for a thesis paper! It's vital, concrete, personal! It demands a change of life, a change of everything!

God makes, God rules, God cares – and God gave proof of that by doing what the Athenians would never have expected, could barely bear to hear. He picked a Judge, the Judge died, but the Judge lives again! The Greeks thought resurrection impossible; but whether they believe it or not, God raised the Judge from the dead (Acts 17:31). That's why 'Jesus' and 'Resurrection' was all Paul's theme (Acts 17:18). So what, Paul asks the Athenians, will they do now?

And here's where Paul pokes his head out of the pages of the Bible and looks square at us. What will we do now? The kind God stepped near to his creation from the start, coming within reach, making us windows into his character; and what's more, now in these last days he's stepped into our skin and proved himself. He's perfect window and perfect light, all in one – Jesus Christ, the Living Revelation of God. We can't control him, can't domesticate him, can't box him in. And the days when a people could get away with pleading ignorance – well, even the best excuses are two thousand years obsolete.

And yet we still try to confine our religion to temples made with human hands. As if God were limited to the inside of these church walls! As if he wasn't trying to lead us out – drag us out, if he has to – into the world to share the good news and disciple the nations! Still we pretend our service earns us credit. As if we had something he needed! 

Still we chronically stare at gold and silver in stupendous awe and yet yawn at our neighbors, the very image of the God who refuses to stay far away! Still we moan and wail at the changing tides of culture – as if God weren't allotting times and boundaries to every scheme, every people, every nation! And still we clutter our lives with idols, our vain attempts to bring heavenly life to earth. Still we cling to our waysbut our ways lead to the wrong side of the day that's fixed for the verdict. Outside of Christ, outside of the reality of resurrection, our whole system is out of order.

The only hope isn't in any idol. It isn't in the blind groping of the Athenians, or the civic duty of the Areopagites, or the temples and statues of the masses, or the proud heritage of the City of Man. The only hope is to learn from the Judge before Judgment Day – to thank God through him for our life and breath and everything. 

Idols can't bring heavenly life to earth. All the heavenly life we could ever hope for is available when, through the Appointed Savior, we get to know our nearby Maker, we trust his plan, we turn from our ways, and we love our neighbors made in his image and all the world he created. And “this is eternal life: that they know you, the Only True God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). What will we do? What... will you do?

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