Monday, February 17, 2014

Talking About An Unknown God in Times of Transition

 I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love;
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true,
It satisfies my longings as nothing else would do.

I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.
 Athens is haunted.  When I visited there, I felt the presence of ghosts at every turn. It is the soul of the Western World. How can one not be overwhelmed in the place where we were conceived?
I wanted to stand on Mars Hill, like St. Paul. It was hard to imagine that he too had been overwhelmed, standing on the spot where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had walked. Being a Greek-speaking Roman was reason enough to be moved by the experience but he was also a Jew, a man taught to detest idolatry.
How could Jew not be offended? The contents of Athens’s temples spilled into the streets, pouring out statues of gods, goddesses, fauns, and the half-bred human offspring of gods. Such things were everywhere. 
Perhaps he thought he would get a break on Mars Hill, a place where philosophers and scholars discussed loftier things that those crass artifacts of popular religion. But no, there too were reminders of every imaginable kind of deity.
Athens both exited and vexed Rabbi Saul, Greco-Roman Jew that he was. The idolatry might have provoked him to shout in prophetic rage against the Athenians.  Other Jews had done it and would do it again.
So why didn’t he denounce Athens? Why didn’t he tell the Athenians that their culture amounted to nothing; that everything they valued would soon melt under the fierily judgment of an angry God?
Well, the reason was simple: he had just arrived from Thessaloniki. He had tried to share new things about God there with people he thought were his friends. In response, several of them had organized a mob. They created create such a ruckus that Paul and Silas had to leave.
Fortunately, the synagogue in nearby Berea welcomed the weary preachers. Their relief was short-lived though. Jews from Thessaloniki followed them and stirred up the crowds there too.
After all of that, it had become impossible for Paul to believe that professing believers were more open to the Word of God than Pagans. That’s why he was in no mood to fight with the people of Athens. So he didn’t come to Athens as a Jewish zealot.
All of his religious certainly had been knocked out of him.
He was conflicted though. How could he just stand in the middle of the idols without saying anything about it?
He was just vexed for a while, not knowing what to do or what to say.

Then he saw an altar. It was unclaimed by the likes of Athena or Poseidon. The deity for whom this altar had been built and maintained was not yet known in Athens. That altar comforted Paul. Like Abraham after the battle of the kings, who paid tithe to Melchizedek, priest of El Shaddai, Paul made a theological shift.  Abraham had recognized the face of Yahweh in his mysterious Canaanite host, just as Paul now recognized the glow of God’s Shekinah on that empty altar.
That altar might not have moved Paul before his experiences in Thessaloniki. Now it seemed to make a lot of sense. But in what sense could a Jew admit that God was unknown?
When serving as a Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus had certainly known who God was. Then, on the road to Damascus, he had lost all his religious confidence. Otherwise, why would a Rabbi have ever have asked Yahweh, “Who are you Lord?”
Paul’s journey teaches us something important: Even when God is known he remains unknown.  Our spiritual journey continually forces us out of certainties about God into new certainties. Then, those certainties too began to unravel. God continually woos us beyond old idols and images into ever new visitations with the ineffable Spirit, the Creator Spirit, the One who made us for Himself – all of us, from every nation under heaven.
That is the great truth that had first moved St. Paul to become the apostle to the Gentiles. Now took his insight to an entirely new level.
“I want to tell you something about this god you have been worshiping without knowing.” Paul says.
Then he takes as radical a leap as one can imagine for a Jewish apologist. He tells the Athenians that their unknown god is none other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By so doing, Paul becomes a new Abraham, recognizing God’s presence at work in that pagan context. Paul stands beside an altar built by pagans and claims it on behalf of the one for whom it had been ignorantly built. The priest of the altar had arrived and began to plant the kingdom of God at the very heart of the Western World.
“God was not offended in the past by your efforts to worship with him, although he forbids us to make statues of him as you have innocently done. Furthermore, He is not really unknown, as you seem to think,” Paul said.
Paul draws here on what we would later call the doctrine of common grace, the idea that our God, who sends rain on both the just and the unjust, grants spiritual insight to all people everywhere. His insight is why we Christians have historically believed the Holy Spirit to be at work even where Christ is not yet named, preparing the nations to accept the Good News of the Gospel.
Paul extends this concept of common grace to include even the ancestors of the Athenians to whom he was preaching.
“God was at work back then too,” Paul claims.
“Certain of your poets have written a great truth about God when they said ‘in him we live, we move and have our being.’ So we are all the offspring of God – you as well as the Jewish people – all of us. That means that God is not as distant as you have thought. I have come here to tell you that this same God has established a day when He will judge the world in righteousness. He will do this through a Man he ordained by raising Him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection, some laughed. But please notice that they laughed; they did not rage as his fellow believers had in Thessaloniki. They didn’t drive Paul out of the city. Furthermore, some did not laugh. Some wanted to hear more. Some believed. Two Athenians even joined Paul’s missionary party.
In a way, it doesn’t matter that the Athenians misunderstood Paul’s sermon, that they didn’t even register the the name “Jesus.” They had heard Paul say the word 'Anastasias’ and thought that was the name of Paul’s God. And in a way, they were right.  Who is Jesus after all if not resurrection?
Let’s take some comfort from that. We all see as through a glass darkly, but what we see in that glass is enough for us to begin our spiritual journey.
Paul had not meant to be so congenial in Athens. He had actually gone to Greece to “tell the old, old story to those who knew it best.” But he quickly learned that his fellow believers were not “longing to hear it like the rest.”
I think I understand what he felt. I love the old, old story too. I love it best in those forms in which I first encountered it. The songs and testimonies; the outlandish preachers who dramatized the Bible stories with spellbinding, if not always accurate applications to everyday life -- I love all of that. I would have rather stayed there, wallowing in the comfort of my old, old story.
Unfortunately, many of the people to whom I would have most enjoyed telling that old, old story were not that interested. So I began to preach to Rwandans, Taiwanese, Nepalese, Nigerians and Kurds. I began preaching to pagans and addicts, to people who didn’t know my songs.  They didn’t know who Jonah or Samson were. And yet, they have returned to listen, and, in many cases, to believe.
Like Paul, I have had to ask a question: where is God most unknown? Is it in those places that build an unclaimed altar in the midst of their deities? Or is it in those places where people decide they have already heard all they need do hear about God and have nothing more to learn?
 My old hymns make no sense to many of the people I now pastor. They cannot begin to understand the King James Version of the Bible, which I will probably die quoting.
Many of you are in similar situations and you hardly know what to do next.
Finding ourselves thrust into this newly globalized world makes us feel as though we are in exile, trying to sing the song of the Lord in a strange land.
We must look for unclaimed altars and unfamiliar poets on which we can hang the words of Zion, and connect with people who swim in God without knowing who he is. We must find our voice in a strange new world. But what finally comes out of our mouths, foolish and inadequate though it is, can sanctify a place and a time where people meet the Living God and prepare themselves for that day God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness.
Perhaps it is the least known stanza of the old hymn that reveals the main reason believers since Paul have ventured into strange new territories, snuck past their own dragons of imagination, and find new words and new connections through which to spread the gospel of Christ:

I love to tell the story, more wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams;
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me,
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.

A sermon prepared for David Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tenn. February 15, 2014

No comments: