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Do you like to travel? I do. My wife does. We are a good match. We are retired now - a pastor out to pasture, as they say - so we have more of an opportunity to travel than in years past. Except for right now, of course. The current coronavirus shut-down in most of the world shouts out STAY HOME, so we are obediently doing it. To be honest, I cannot imagine getting on a crowded airplane or cruise ship or even eating in a busy restaurant these days. The public health experts say it is too dangerous. So we stay home. Not forever, but for a while. Right now, we are all affected by this pandemic, but those that are hit most of all are folks whose livelihood are tied to travel and tourism, and that is especially evident here on Hilton Head Island. The good news that I have for those of you who are so directly affected is THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I wish I could tell you WHEN - I can't. I can simply say IT WILL. These things always do.
What brings travel and tourism to mind this morning is our lesson from the 17th chapter of Acts. The Apostle Paul is in Athens. My wife and I were there last year - tourists. Paul too. He is not there on a mission. He was in Athens waiting to meet up with Silas and Timothy so they could continue on to Corinth on their missionary journey together. He had some free time, so he made use of it by playing tourist, walking through the bustling city and seeing the sights. Just like we did. Although a bit tattered and run down at the heels by comparison to its golden age, Athens was still a great university town where important ideas were valued and intellectual curiosity was high. We are talking about the home of Socrates and Plato. Lots to see and do.
As Paul made his way around, he could not help noticing the incredible number and variety of religious shrines and temples, the same way I notice churches and cathedrals when I travel. It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together, and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man. (1) Paul looked at these things, not with modern eyes that admire the works of art and antiquity, but rather through religious eyes that were stunned at the variety. As we know, Paul was no shrinking violet and, stranger in town or no, all of this religious expression offered him an occasion to expound on his understanding of faith. He began in the synagogue then moved out into the marketplace, a venue not only for commerce but for the interchange of ideas. In a city like Athens it was not difficult to attract an audience.
It would be lovely to say that everyone who heard were mesmerized by his message and another 3,000 joined the Christian church that day, just like at Pentecost after Peter's sermon, but such was not the case. Some thought what he had to say was just plain nonsense, calling him a "babbler." Others apparently thought it was dangerous nonsense, that he was proclaiming "new gods" which just happened to be a capital offense in classical Athens, the very one for which Socrates had been executed. Things were beginning to look ominous and he was hauled before the city fathers at the Areopagus to defend what he was preaching.
The Areopagus is both a place, a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens (in Greek it means "hill of Ares" - the Romans called it "Mars Hill"), but more importantly it was the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens, so-named because it met on that site. Dating back some five or six centuries before Christ, the Areopagus consisted of nine archons or chief magistrates who guided the city-state away from rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece's eventual democracy. Across the years the Areopagus changed - by Paul's day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated by some thirty-or-so members. It is here that Paul delivers one of his three major missionary speeches and the only one we have record of to non-believers.
He begins with what sounds like a compliment: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious." This is the only time we find this particular Greek word in the New Testament. It is desidemon which means literally, "fear of the demons or of the supernatural." What Paul was saying was that the people of Athens were highly superstitious (which, by the way, is precisely how the old King James Version translates it). (2) Compliment? Probably just a statement of fact.
"As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD," Paul continued. In fact, had Paul had more time to play tourist, he would have found many altars to unknown gods in Athens. Six hundred years before, a terrible plague had fallen on the city which nothing could halt (sound familiar?). A Cretan poet, Epimenides, had come forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep was let loose throughout the city from the Areopagus. Wherever each lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god; and if a sheep lay down near the shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to "The Unknown God." (3) This is the springboard from which Paul's sermon takes off. "What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."
Now he gets rolling. There are a series of points in his message, as if the preacher is arguing a brief. He begins at the beginning: creation. "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands." Or, for that matter, in a wooden statue or lump of rock somewhere. God is not the made but the maker, and this God made EVERYTHING - individuals, giving the breath of life; nations, giving direction to history. You can forget the rain god and sun god and all those other niche gods. This one is all you need.
Paul then takes into account this yearning for God that appears to be universal. He insists that this is by divine design - "so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him..." Then there is the somewhat shocking statement, especially to those Stoics who insisted that God is so far above and beyond us that no contact is ever possible in this life. Paul says God "is not far from each one of us," and then he adds a familiar quote from their aforementioned poet Epimenides, "'For in him we live and move and have our being.'" And he continued, "As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring,'" the word of their Cilician bard Aratus. (4) Hmm. Tell us more, preacher, tell us more.
Now the preacher brings it on home. Since we all are God's offspring, all these various and sundry little gold or silver or stone representations are useless. Even worse, they are ultimately blasphemous, and God will judge such behavior. So, Paul concludes, God "commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." It is no Unknown God with which we are concerned anymore but rather the Risen Christ.
The reaction of the Athenians was not the same as those in Jerusalem who had heard the same thing. Instead of "Wow, what must we do?" and 3,000 joining the church, it was, "Hmm. Interesting." And that was the GOOD reaction. As the text has it, "some of them sneered." Some wanted to talk more, but whether that was more than the native Athenian intellectual curiosity we will never know. Not exactly a banner day in the life of the early church - it was to be blunt, in the words of our sermon title, St. Paul's big, fat, Greek flop.
Oh, it is not as if no one responded at all. We have the word that Dionysius, one of the Areopagus council members, did, along with a woman of which we know nothing called Damaris. The text says "a number of others,' but no more detail than that. To be honest, this could not be described as an entire flop, but I think the Apostle Paul felt it was. Sometime later, he would write to the Corinthians, the folks to whom he would be going after his sojourn in Athens. He had tried to share Christ with the Athenians by force of his reasoned argument, but with not much result. He apparently changed his approach on his next stop. In his words,
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified...My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (5)
Some have suggested that Paul's speech on Mars Hill offers a model for engaging the secular intellectuals of our day. He begins where his audience is with reference to their own situation, a remark about their being "very religious" and that altar to an unknown God. Then Paul, having identified with his audience, subtly began to talk about the true God, not their god, not just any god, but the God of all creation who has guided history and is closer than some might dream. He even quotes their own Greek poets to make his point. People need to know that it makes a difference whether or not they have the RIGHT God. Any old god won't do! Now, bring it home, preacher. Where do we encounter this God? In the risen Christ. Ta-Da!
In a Peanuts comic strip, Linus listens attentively as his sister Lucy tells him about her potential as an advocate for the faith. She says to Linus: "I would have made a good evangelist. Do you know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his religion."
"How did you do that?" Linus asks.
"I hit him with my lunch box!" Lucy replies. (6)
Laugh if you will, but that does sound like the approach that some people take in sharing their witness. Paul does not buy that. According to his later reflection to his Corinthian friends, we would best simply tell "the old, old story of Jesus and his love," and let them respond in their own way. Just tell the story, and, by the way, live the story in your own life so folks can see what a difference it makes.
Yes, we know too well, people do some incredible things, even awful things, in the name of religion. Nietzsche was not unfair when he said, "You will have to look more redeemed if I am to believe in your Redeemer." Laurence Houseman said, "A saint is one who makes goodness attractive." (7) There is that youngster who responded to the Children's Sermon question about where we find saints by looking up at the stained glass windows was spot on in answering, "The saints are the ones the light shines through." Amen.
One of my friends writes, "I don't know about you, but I find it just a tiny bit gratifying that even the great Paul of Tarsus preached some sermons that bombed. Well, not totally. There were two converts - Dionysius and Damaris. But you never hear from them again and there is no record of a church being founded in Athens. Maybe that's because Paul doesn't follow his own convictions. Maybe he's a bit spooked by all those Greek intellectuals, so he doesn't preach only "Jesus Christ and him crucified." In other words, Paul doesn't tell the story. He tried to use Greek logic. He tried to reason them into the faith. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now." (8)
St. Paul's big, fat, Greek flop. I know how he felt, because I have had plenty of my own big, fat, homiletical flops. I wish every sermon I preach would have the same result as Peter's Pentecost address - people clamoring to join the church, even more than we could handle. But no, it has never been like that.
Some years ago, my mother was visiting our young family and was with us for worship on Sunday. At the conclusion of the service, I was at the door greeting folks on their way out, and that included Mom as well. Her comment to me in regard to my sermon that day was, "Well, don't worry. Even Babe Ruth didn't hit a home run every time at the plate." Uh-huh. Right, Mom. Flop, flop, flop.
Then again, sometimes we just do not know what a sermon will mean from one person to the next. The Holy Spirit works in, not only mysterious ways, but mischievous ways as well. Over the years, with more frequency than I could recount, we hear "That sermon was exactly what I needed to hear today," or "You didn't know it but those words last week helped me get over a really difficult time," or the card or e-mail from someone who says what a difference I have made in their life. I wonder how the Spirit manages that. Maybe not such a flop as I am tempted to think. Thank you, Lord.
Paul the tourist was not a flop in Athens, really. By his standards perhaps, and even the standards of the world that always looks for those big numbers. But remember, "A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others." Who knows what God did with them? Something wonderful, I bet. What do you think?
1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
2. Robert J. Elder, Restoring the Future, (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2001), pp. 88-89
4. Elder, p. 90
5. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
6. Quoted by King Duncan, "Crossing The Desert Or Protecting Our Vehicle?" eSermons.com
7. Barbara Brokhof, "Sneak Up on 'Em," Bitter-sweet Recollections, (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 1983)
8. From Ralph Milton's RUMORS, a free Internet 'e-zine' for Christians with a sense of humor, 4/20/08