Sermon: The Unknown God

by The Rev. Lisa Caine
May 25, 2014
Acts 17:22-31, 1Peter 3:13-16

When I returned to church after a fifteen year hiatus, I joined a Sunday School class called “The Seekers.” During those years of absence from the church, I didn’t see much relevance of the church or of faith to my life; it was a time when I thought God and anything associated with the church was old fashioned, mostly boring, and often a waste of time. I thought I had everything pretty much figured out. I knew what I wanted, where I was going, and who I wanted to go there with. But then as it happens inevitably in life, those certainties were disrupted, and that clear path to the good life, didn’t seem so sure anymore. So I returned to church, and the Seekers class was perfect for me. There were other people, I found, that also didn’t have all the answers, despite their successful careers, beautiful families, and brilliant minds. We were all starting back at our own personal “square one” and helping one another to move along a new path which was not clear at all.

I like this story from Acts about Paul’s conversation with the Athenians because I identify, not with Paul, but with the Athenians and their inquiring minds. In the verses immediately preceding the one I read, Paul had arrived in Athens ahead of his friends Timothy and Silas and was taken aback by the presence of so many different idols and places of worship. So he went, as was his custom, first to a synagogue and then to the market place to speak with any and all who would engage him in conversation. He didn’t find any takers in the synagogue and the people in the market place were suspicious of him; they called him a babbler and a proclaimer of foreign deities. But some were interested in hearing more and so they took him to the Areopagus, which was both a place of gathering, and the name for the select group of city leaders who met there to debate and decide matters of civic interest and concern – anything from legal and political matters to religious and philosophical positions as well.

There is a sense in this passage that Athens is a place of constant debate and discussion; everybody there enjoys a good argument. One commentator on this passage, a professor at a United Methodist seminary, describes the scene as something like “a continuous meeting of the faculty” which in his own experience could often be either be “tedious and rancorous” or “enlightening and edifying.”[i]   So maybe some of you can relate to the group Paul had been invited to address!

His initial remarks to the city leaders reflect on what he’s seen in Athens since his recent arrival – objects of worship everywhere, even an altar to “an unknown god.” And he praises the religious impulse that has them trying to cover every possible base – or every possible god – even the ones they may not know about. Now some critics think Paul is being sarcastic here, making fun of idol worship, getting ready for the big take-down, and knowing some of the things we know about Paul from his letters, that’s not entirely implausible. But I see it more as an example of the advice given in 1Peter that we heard Katie read earlier: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Whatever Paul’s motivation, gentleness and reverence or sarcasm, that phrase “unknown god” touches me, for we are all seeking a God who is unknown in various ways to us, and as long as we live there will be unknown aspects of God yet to be revealed.

Paul acknowledges that although their religious backgrounds couldn’t be any more different, both he and the Athenians are seeking, searching for God or gods that can give meaning and purpose to life and we don’t know who or what that god might be. We just know there’s something more. Paul was speaking primarily to Stoics and Epicureans, but we can find ourselves in the mix – as we look for the unknown god ourselves. We also can experience a restlessness, a sense that something is missing, and begin searching just as the ancient Athenians did.

The Athenians had gods for practically every natural occurrence or life event – birth, death, love, wisdom, warfare, travel, language, music, arts, family life, childbirth, parties, festivals, agriculture, drought, flood – just to name a few! These gods tended to be a capricious lot, and had to be bribed, or sacrificed to in order to assure their positive attention.

Of course today, we label that primitive superstition, but we have our own gods just as controlling of our daily lives. We think we’ve got all those natural occurrences figured out, so we worship the gods to technology. We have a respectful reverence for the gadgets (or idols) that are their physical representations. These dominate our time and imagination, they offer promises of control and knowledge, and pretty much take all the mystery and wonder and true reverence out of our lives.[ii]

Temporarily at least, a smart phone or a computer can give us a feeling of security, or power, or connection to the larger world. I imagine, if we are honest, we can become so dependent on these gadgets that when the power goes out, or the cell phone battery dies, we panic just a little. We don’t think we can do without them for very long.

But more dangerously perhaps, just as we can find a variety of gods in our secular lives, so also in our culture just as in the ancient past there is a religious marketplace that out there to meet our need, to help us find whatever it is that is spiritually “missing” from our lives. There are books, CDs, workshops, and seminars designed to help us fill any spiritual unease with just the right kind of god (or idol). And believe it or not this religious marketplace can be idolatrous even though everything we may buy is labeled with the adjective “Christian.” Eugene Peterson says that it is idolatry because in the marketplace “God is packaged as a product; God is depersonalized and made available as a technique or a program.”[iii]

A good example of this kind of idolatry is The Prayer of Jabez, a book that became a best seller about a decade ago. It was about how you can “increase your territory” by praying a prayer based on a little known verse from the Old Testament. The author claimed: “I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.” Following this initial book, there were variations – Prayer of Jabez for children, for men, for women, for devotions, or group studies, as well as prayer of Jabez music, Jabez jewelry, and decorative pieces. It became an idol – a god product, a way or technique to manipulate God.

So how do we, in our search for God who is unknown to us, and whom we wish to know better, and for whom we have a longing and a restlessness within, negotiate the marketplace of idols and avoid falling into what I’d call the unintentional idolatry of a god-product or god-technique? Paul’s answer is pretty simple really; it is to remember that God is God and we are not! He proclaims to the Athenians the identity of the unknown god; it is “the God who made the world and everything in it . . . the Lord of Heaven and Earth.” God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Benefactor of humankind, who needs nothing from us but gives “to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

This God is the real deal. This God is beyond our control, cannot be used by us, or manipulated by us for our pet causes and desires. God is the creator and we are the created; not the other way around, as is the case with idols. That’s why that bumper sticker “God is my co-pilot” is actually idolatry! The old hymn has it right, “Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous seas!” Think about it – we’d never sing “Jesus, Savior, co-pilot with me, over life’s tempestuous seas!” it would be ludicrous. And yet we don’t even think about putting that nonsense on a bumper sticker and think of it as a profession of faith!

Paul goes on to say to his Athenian audience and to us as well, that the one God who created all that is also made all the nations and peoples of the world and planted in us an instinctive desire to search, grope for, and perhaps find God. We are God’s children. And God is not far from each one of us; in fact, it is “in God that we live and move and have our being,” he says.   So just as a fish swims in water, and that water keeps the fish alive, so God is the ocean in which we swim and thereby live.

Each step of Paul’s argument has led to his final point. He has acknowledged the universal human spiritual yearning and the desire to live our lives according to some ultimate loyalty or object of belief. He then argues that the Athenian unknown God is the universal God who transcends the provincial, and is god of the many, not the few, and who is close to us and can be found. And then he offers them his proof.

That proof is Jesus. At that point, Paul’s argument ceases, however, to be an argument and becomes a statement of faith. Paul says God has given us Jesus “a man whom he has appointed and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Not included in the lectionary reading for today is the reaction of the Athenians. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris; and others with them.” He got a mixed reaction: Some scoffed; some said they were curious and they wanted to hear more; and some believed.

Coming to faith in Jesus as the Christ is not a matter of the head, but of the heart. At some point, and for each one of us that point is different, we will go as far as we can go with our heads, with our intellect, with our theological theories and proofs, with our debates and our arguments, and finally step out in faith, or not. For me it came in the Seeker’s Sunday School class. As I have told you before, during a discussion of suffering and death, after the testimony of a member who struggled with MS, I finally stopped arguing and debating, and said to myself, “I like this Jesus; I believe in him; I trust him.”

Paul wasn’t wildly successful in his address to the Athenians. Unlike Peter whose few sentences on the day of Pentecost brought about the conversion of some 3000 people( and first he had to explain that he wasn’t drunk), Paul’s words touched the hearts of just a few, Dionysius and Damaris, a man and a woman prominent enough to be named, and then some others with them. But that’s the way it is. Argument alone doesn’t bring many to faith. Argument alone is not enough to bring about a complete reordering of what we think and of how we live. Argument alone cannot cause us to put aside competing loyalties and persuade us to begin a new life in Christ. It takes something more; something not of our own doing, but of God’s doing in us.

Fittingly, yesterday was the 276th anniversary of what is now called John Wesley’s “Aldersgate experience.” He had been struggling with questions of faith, and on May 24, 1738, in the evening he attended a meeting in Aldersgate. Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. And Wesley wrote, that at about 8:45 p.m. “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Once in awhile we feel our hearts “strangely warmed.” It’s not of our doing. But perhaps our discussing, debating, studying, reflecting and seeking together will put us in a place where we will be ready for the experience. It doesn’t last forever. Wesley would doubt again. I have doubted again. I imagine you have too. That’s normal. But then there are those undeniable “heart-warming” experiences that defy rational explanation. It’s just something that you know with your heart and soul as well as your head. And for just a little while, or if we’re most fortunate, for a long, long while, the unknown God becomes known down deep inside. So it was that day for Dionysius and Damaris. May it be so for you and for me as well.  Amen.

[i] John C. Holbert, “Interreligious Dialogue or Interreligious Monologue? Reflections on Acts 17:22-31,” Patheos, May 23, 2014.

[ii] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 126.

[iii] Peterson, 124-125.