St Bride's: Sermons

The unknown God

Acts 17: 22-31

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22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.

30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

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I don't know whether you read the Sunday newspaper colour supplements magazines. I do, especially the Sunday Times Style magazine but I sometimes try to picture the sort of person these magazines are aimed at. The demographic seems to be someone fairly sophisticated, worldly, aspirational, interested in fitness and beauty, in self-improvement, in realising their potential and open to spiritual improvement, but in a very vague and eclectic way that embraces everything from feng shui to yoga to meditation.

That may be a bit of a caricature, but that's the impression I get from scanning the articles, and that audience is not unlike the kind of people Paul was addressing in Athens two thousand years ago. We heard as the first reading probably one of the best-known sermons ever preached - Paul's sermon to the sophisticated Athenians on the subject of 'the unknown God'.

It is a highly skilled performance which presses all the right buttons, starts from where his audience is, takes them with him, and then delivers a couple of hefty challenges to make them think and respond.

Paul has noticed that they have an altar 'To An Unknown God'. The Greeks were steeped in philosophy, especially of the school of Plato, and this bred a kind of 'open' attitude about the gods.

The prevailing feeling was 'we'll never know one way of the other whether the gods exist or not so the occasional offering of worship can't do any harm'. It was a kind of benign agnosticism such as many people share today. Paul meets this with the demonstration that this unknown God is actually the Creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures, known about by their own poets all along. And furthermore that this transcendent God is also right here with us, he is the one 'in whom we live and move and have our being'.

That's Paul's first challenge - God is one not many, and God is near, not far away. So far so good - the sophisticated Athenian audience would probably be listening attentively, even nodding their heads. And so probably are we. Many people today still find belief in a creator God attractive, an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. But then Paul delivers his second challenge - that this creator God is moving history forward to a divinely ordained goal, when he will judge the world through a particular person, Jesus, whom he has raised from the dead. This was an idea too far for many first century Athenians, and for many today and we are told that his listeners scoffed at Paul and accused him of babbling.

The belief that God has acted and intervened directly and decisively in the world by raising Jesus from the dead as the beginning of the process of setting right the whole universe is still a stumbling block to some people. As one writer has put it: 'It has never been at any time possible to fit the resurrection of Jesus into any world view except a world view of which it is the basis.'

So Paul, preaching to the sophisticated Athenians of the first century AD, and speaking to us over a gap of two millennia, challenges our modern mildly agnostic Sunday colour magazine culture with the claim that the transcendent God of history is a living God close to us and able to be discovered and met in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Think hard therefore about the spiritual realm, of which it may be more comfortable to remain agnostic, and allow the light of the living God to flood through your life and transform you. See things from the perspective of the Resurrection and allow that new world view to change you.

Paul took on the Stoics and Epicureans and Platonist philosophers of his day and answered their question about Jesus and the resurrection. He harmonised their disparate views of live and the tune made sense. It still does.  Amen.

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