May 29, 2011


“To An Unknown God”

Acts 17:22-31

John 14: 15-24



In verse 22 of the Acts text read this morning, Paul finds himself taken to the ‘Mars hill’ in Athens, in order that the Athenians might hear of his “new teachings.”  He says to them, “I see that in every way you are very,” reverent to demons.  Literally that is what the Greek word means, reverent to demons, or as most bibles soften the tone and write, “very religious.”


Did you know that over 15% of the American population does not subscribe to any faith or religious tradition?  In 2010 there were some people who wrote in “Jedi” as a way to protest the question even being asked.  When the hospital used to ask clergy to sign in, I sometimes wrote “Jedi” on the denomination line myself, just to rattle their cage.  So, I think I understand, sort of, the nature of their complaint.  But this number, this 15%, does not include Wiccans or Spiritualists or something that the census people call “unclassified.”  That number of non-religious, by the way, is double what it was a decade ago. 


I was surprised by that number.  See, we Americans are a very religious people.  I know of a minister who met the husband of one of his active members one morning in the coffee shop.  He went over to say hello.  You know, talk about the weather, what was happening in town.  As he excused himself from this gathering, and before he could greet him the man said, “You know, I am a good man, I work hard, I take care of my family.”  The minister took this to mean that the man wasn’t going to listen to any urging about church. 


This man, I don’t think, is one of those fourteen percent.  He probably is part of the vast religious culture we live in.  He probably didn’t report, in the latest census, that he doesn’t have any faith.  He might even say he believes in God, it is just that he doesn’t want to be troubled with going to church.  There are many, many folks  out there who want to believe, but do not want to be bothered with, as Jesus said, “keeping my commandments.”


Apparently there are lots of people like that.  If everyone who checked the little box on the census saying they were protestant came to church every Sunday, even in our community, well, the protestant churches here couldn’t hold all of them.  We are not talking about agnostics, a kind of skeptic that hedges their bet about a deity by saying, well, I am not sure if there is a god and no I don’t worship.  We are not talking about atheists who flat out deny the existence of God.  No, that isn’t it.  We are talking about people who do believe in something, who worship something, but it isn’t at all clear what or who the object of their worship is. 


I believe that to be human means to worship something, it may be the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, it may be something of our own making, our own interest, something we hold as ultimately important.  It isn’t all that hard to figure out what people worship.  Some people say that budgets are moral documents.  I say they are a lens into our faith.  The same is true for anyone who says they love Jesus and then engage in every kind of mean-spiritedness and bigotry.  We reveal what we believe.


Paul is in Athens this morning, making his rounds at the various temples, getting ready for his sermon in the Areophagus, the official court held on Mars hill, a spur jutting out near the western end of the Acropolis.  While he was preparing, getting ready to tell about a certain Jesus of Nazareth, he saw an altar inscribed “to an unknown God.”


Can you imagine?  To an unknown God?  There were other altars, with names ascribed to them.   These people were, apparently, very religious.  There was a variety of altars, some to Apollos, Mars, I guess, I don’t know.  He doesn’t really say.  Some say he was speaking to a particularly religious group, the Stoics, they were called.  Very religious people.  I think there are some here in the United States, maybe even in Wernersville.  See they believe in the law of nature and the law of conscience.  To them God is that all-pervading energy by which the world is created and sustained, the source of wisdom which reveals itself in the order and beauty of the universe.  They are not the 14% who do not believe anything.  They believe. 


I am talking about a generic, not specific, worship.  This is very attractive to many people, and it is not particularly demanding.  So why not, as some people have done, take some of the best teachings of Jesus, the best teachings of Gandhi, the best teachings of Muhammad, the best teachings of Gautama the Buddha, put them together and call it a way of life?  Now this is the way to live!  Have a good family, have good relationships, be wealthy and successful and wise.  A friend of my mother went off to become a member of something called “Unity.”  I was in seminary at the time, and so this lady was keen to talk to me.  I knew she came from a traditional ‘Christian church,’ and I asked her what was the attraction?  She testified to receiving what she did not get in her traditional church, namely, a sense of caress and comfort and health and coping and healing.  There is no cross there.  I did not say it at the time, but it reminded me of something Reinhold Niebuhr said some years ago when he was teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, “This is a view that insists on a God without wrath bringing men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”


Paul was hanging around Athens, and earlier in chapter 17, verse 16, it says all this ticked him off.  Not really, it says, “…His spirit was enraged within him.”  It says that there in the Areophagus, the listeners treated him in the worst way a preacher could be treated:  they laughed.  So what did this vain babbler say to make them laugh?  He rehearses the whole of the gospel, beginning with God, our God, to whom scripture credits the creation of everything there is, including you and me.  Then he goes on to tell of one you would recognize as Jesus (without mentioning his name), resurrected from the dead (maybe the one thing they didn’t believe in), and ends with saying that this God is also a God who judges.  He said this in Athens, beautiful, culturally elite Athens.  He said this to a culture that overflowed with every kind of luxury and comfort, a culture that regards personal sacrifice as foolish, as something that makes no sense.  Those people worshiped, they worshiped everything in sight, everything that might help them.  It was about “me.” 


Listen, the problem is that it is always easier to worship something that gives something to you, success, some control, a leg up on the various problems of life.  It is easier to worship something you can see, touch, feel, than a real God who is free and powerful, working the other side of the street as well as this side.   It is so much easier to preach about a god, who if you give him a nickel he will give you back a dime.  


It is hard to preach about God that cannot be manipulated, a God who makes demands upon you, and that as a consequence of your faith live in a new way.  It is hard to preach that.


I suppose there are other ways which God, the God of Abraham and Issac, and Jacob, this One God, can be known.  But for me, God is most clearly known through this Jesus of Nazareth.  What I know is that when we hear Jesus saying that, if we love God, will dwell with us, that this God is a real God, who is somehow present in our lives. This is a God who may not fix everything, but gives strength to those who suffer and brings dead people back to life; Now, this is the only God worth worshiping. 


Some say that Paul went from Athens to Corinth, and there, you remember, he said he only wished to focus on “Christ, and him crucified.”   There are times when the world around you seems very religious, but misguided, and then you might be compelled to say, “you are missing the point: God is here, in Jesus, through his resurrection.”  People might look at you and your life and laugh.  But I still believe today is as good a day as any to say it.