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Last week was the 15th anniversary of the Branch Davidian debacle. A former Seventh-Day Adventist by the name of Vernon Howell joined the sect, changed his name to David Koresh and began preaching apocalyptic confrontation with unbelievers. Law enforcement authorities planned a raid on the compound outside of Waco, Texas because they believed he had illegal weapons there, but the raid was botched and turned into a siege. On April 19, 1993 an attempt to bulldoze the cult into submission turned into a firefight and then a holocaust when the Branch Davidians set fire to everything. Nearly 80 died, including about 20 children and including Koresh. Religion gone wild again.
Remember Jonestown? Jim Jones had been born in an Indiana town that specialized in casket-making and, as a boy, Jim and his friends used to piously hold funerals for animals. As he grew up he became a magnetic preacher, found his home too narrow and racist, so he moved his family and followers to California, where he received a good deal of public acclaim as leader of the People's Temple. But then he began to call himself God. In 1977, he moved his followers to "Jonestown," a property he had purchased in Guyana. In November, 1978, Jones ordered the murder of a visiting US Congressman and then, in a spasm of paranoid megalomania, ordered his followers to drink a Kool-Aid-like drink spiked with cyanide. Those who refused were either forced to drink or killed outright. More than 900 people died, including some 200 children and Jones himself. If nothing else, the horrific incident's enduring legacy is the contribution to our language of the phrase significant of dangerous gullibility - "He drank the Kool-Aid." Isn't it fun what goes on in the world in the name of religion?
There are lots of other examples, of course, but if it is any consolation, it is an age-old problem. The Apostle Paul encountered it on his trip to Athens that we have recorded in our lesson. Actually, he had not intended to preach there - he only happened to be in Athens waiting to meet up with Silas and Timothy so they could continue on to Corinth on their missionary journey together. He made use of his free time by playing tourist, walking through the bustling city and seeing the sights. 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. 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. 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, 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. 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 insist 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. Luke includes "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! A model for our evangelism? Perhaps.
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, as we noted at the beginning of this and we know too well, people do some incredible 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) The 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 Demaris. 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, Warren 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. Flop, flop, flop.
Then again, that may be too quick an answer, because with more frequency than I give credit for, 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 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