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Saturday, May 28, 2011

To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Sometimes – not very often – we get it right on the first try. Thirty-five years ago I went shopping for a new guitar. I knew what model I wanted, but really fine instruments each have their own personality and sound. You can’t buy a great musical instrument from a catalog – you have to play it to find the one that’s just right. So, I went to a suburban Washington, D.C. music store, told them what I wanted, and the salesman brought three brand new guitars out of the storeroom. He opened up the first one, handed it to me, I tuned it, and began to play. That was the one, and I never played another. That’s never happened again – I looked for years until I found the 12 string guitar that spoke to me; my son Drew and I went to three different stores and he played a dozen guitars before we found The One; he played about four clarinets before The One emerged. Maybe you’ve had the same experience with cars, or with boats, with houses, with mattresses. Or churches. Or friends. Or mates. That’s why we date, after all – we try this person, and this person, and this person. And, if we’re really blessed, after a string of bad to middling to pretty good prospects, there’s this one guitar – house – church – lover – that, in the words of Saint Goldilocks of the Three Bears, is just right.

St. Paul had been wandering around the city of Athens while waiting for his assistants, Silas and Timothy, to arrive from Berea. There were religious shrines all around the city, Paul discovered, each with an altar dedicated to a different god. Athens was a kind of religious Burger King: you could have it your way. There was even a shrine in the city dedicated to whatever god had been left out, addressed, in Paul’s words, to an unknown god. After all, when the world ends and whatever god is God calls you on the carpet, wouldn’t it be a good thing to prove you had covered all the bases? Yahweh, Allah, Zoroaster, Baal, Vishnu, Zeus, Jupiter, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, or Frank Beamer – you want to have worshipped at all their shrines, just in case. Having an etcetera altar is a great idea for eternal fire insurance.

Athens wasn’t just full of altars – it was full of theologians and philosophers who loved to debate the nature of reality and the difference in philosophies and religions. They’re always looking for something new to argue about, so when this well-educated Jew shows up proclaiming a new wrinkle in Judaism – that in fact the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had come, that he had been executed but resurrected three days later, and that he was now the Lord and Savior of the Universe – it was like throwing fresh intellectual meat to starving lions. They bring Paul to the Areopagus for debate.

Areopagus literally means Aries rock. Aries – Mars to the Romans – was the god of war. It’s a rocky hill in Athens just below the Parthenon. But the Areopagus was also a judicial council which originally met on that hill but in Paul’s time probably met elsewhere. If you do a Bible tour of Greece you’ll be taken to this hill and told that’s where Paul debated the philosophers, but that’s probably not true. What is more true is that this scene mirrors the trial of the Greek philosopher Socrates five hundred years earlier, who was brought before the Areopagus and charged with failing to honor the gods of the city and introducing new gods. Do you begin to see the connection?

Paul begins the conversation by damning the Athenians with faint praise: I see that you are extremely religious: you have altars everywhere to every god – even to “an unknown god.” The philosophers probably slapped each other on their backs at this point – yes, we are very religious. Aren’t we wonderful?

Now, having cozied up to them, Paul slips in the knife: Well, I’m going to tell you know about the god you’ve left out – the unknown God. He is not worshipped with offerings at shrines. He made the whole universe, he made every person who has ever lived, and he designed the world and designed you with a hunger for him. Your own Greek philosophy and poetry admits that, and all your shrines reflect your search for him, as well as your lack of finding him. You’ve been looking and looking for The One. Well, I’m here to tell you who he is. The proof is that he sent his Son, by whose life and teachings and death the whole world is measured, and the proof is that he raised his Son from the dead.

When you find The One – the guitar or the house or the lover – it can be good news and it can be bad news. The good news is that you can settle down, throw all the energy you’ve spent searching into playing, living in, or loving The One you’ve found. A friend of mine who had loved a lot of women said, the night before his wedding, that marriage was such a relief knowing he never had to spend another moment wondering if he was ever going to love or to be loved. You don’t have to shop for another guitar or another house. That’s really good news.

Except for people who love shopping – for guitars or houses or love – more than they love that for which they shop. You can’t ever say yes – to a guitar or a house or a lover – without saying no to others. There’s something very attractive about never committing, never landing, never taking root, never settling down -- you never have to say no. But the flip side is that you can’t ever really say yes, either. There’s something profoundly immature about never committing oneself to something or someone important, like the eighty-five year old Hugh Hefner flitting from one pneumatic young woman to another. Not to decide, said the theologian Harvey Cox, is to decide.

The world was made, St. Paul says to the consternation of the philosophers, by a God who created a hunger in you for the truth and for God. Once, you did not know his name, and God cut you slack for your ignorance. Those times are over, Paul goes on to say: everything you need to know about God can be found in the crucified and resurrected carpenter from Nazareth (seems like I heard a sermon about this recently!). All your thinking, all your speculating, all your living are judged in reference to Jesus.

In an infamous press conference at the height of the Iraq War, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. The unknown God, Paul says, is now known, and you’re accountable.

You and I live in a very religious world, much like Athens. People like to shop their faith, so they won’t have to commit and risk being wrong. But ignorance, St. Paul tells us, is no longer an excuse. God has given the world everything it needs to know, in Jesus. The question no longer is what God is like or what God expects: God has handed us The One. The question, for you, and for me, and for the world, is what we’re going to do about it.

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