Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I don’t know how many of you follow the day-to-day events at our state capitol, but it seems to me that being a member of our legislature must involved a great sense of humor, and a lot of patience. They spend their time debating such important topics as “Should we show the Republicans how much fun us Minnesotans are by letting bars stay open all night this summer?” “Should we tell youth hockey teams that adults can drink all night but hockey players can’t practice until 6:00 AM?” “Just for fun, should we make a law one year allowing the scalping of football tickets, but the next year, change the law because our own daughters couldn’t afford the scalper’s price for a Hannah Montana concert.” I am inclined to agree with something Mark Twain once said about our federal legislators: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Well, my purpose today is not to bash our elected officials, but to tell you that politicians have been this way for centuries; a lot of talk, a little action. Our first lesson today takes place in Athens, Greece. The Apostle Paul was downtown in the marketplace, preaching a new and radical religion to the common people. Some liked what he was saying, some violently disagreed; but in the end, they said to one another “Let’s take him over to the City Council meeting because they have itching ears, and they love to spend their time hearing about the latest new thing.”
So that’s what they did; they brought Paul to a place called The Areopagus, a small hill just beneath the Acorpolis in Athens. All the brilliant and vocal people of the city were there, and so Paul began speaking to them, with a compliment of sorts. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I walked through your city I looked at all the objects of worship.” Paul was saying that, if the measurement of religion is the number of gods that people worship, then Athens was Mecca. You see, the Greeks had many gods.
There was Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Statues of her would be placed throughout the city, and residents would walk by and worship her…pray to her. In Corinth, they took it a bit further; there they had the Temple of Aphrodite, where women served as priestesses by day, and worked as prostitutes by night.
There was Poseidon, god of the sea. When men traveled on ships, they prayed to Poseidon for safe passage. When the sea became violent, they cried out to Poseidon to save them.
There was Apollo, the sun god. Every morning when the sun arose, the people turned to it and worshipped. Gold images that reflected the sun’s brilliance surely dotted Athens and called the people to prayer.
There was Hermes, the god of flight; Ares, the god of war, and Zeus, the king of the gods, the god of the sky, the god of thunder, the god of lightening.
So Paul tells the people of Athens, “You people are really religious, because you spend your days and nights worshipping these various gods. And on one altar I saw an inscription to ‘the unknown god.’” You see, the Greeks covered all their bases, and just in case they missed a god or two, they worshipped a generic god. You don’t want to anger the gods, so you must worship them all.
Paul took advantage of having seen the altar to the “unknown god” and preached the sermon of his life that day. “Athenians, what you worship as unknown, I tell you this is the God who created you and everything else in the world. But he doesn’t live in your shrines or your temples or your gold statues. He’s everywhere. People throughout history have searched for him, but he was right in their midst, and he is right here in our midst as well.” And then Paul went for broke; “We are his daughters and sons, and he has called us to repent from our sins, and to prove his power, he rose one man to life who had been dead three days.”
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “In preparing the service and service for last Sunday, I was having difficulty in turning my thoughts into something meaningful for the congregation. Your material gave me the impetus I needed. You have treated a difficult passage in the gospel with the skill of a pro and your exegesis is most helpful. Thanks for a job well done!”
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You’re probably wondering how the politicians received Paul’s message that day. Well, some made fun of him, of course. Politicians have always thought they were wiser and more enlightened than all the rest. But some were intrigued by Paul’s words and wanted to hear more. In fact, one of those City Council members was a man named Dionysius, who came to faith in Jesus that day, and went on the be the first bishop of the church in Greece.
Why do I tell you this today? You, who are the religious and enlightened people of the 21st century; why would your pastor become so impassioned about Paul’s words 2000 years ago? Because I am wondering what Paul would say if he came to us today? What judgment would he make about our religion; what message would he bring to our itching ears? Let me suggest that he might say this….
-Pastor puts on a kafia and a Greek cloak-
People of Stillwater, I see that you are religious in every way. I have been watching you, seeing all the religious idols and altars and practices that seem to consume your lives. Everywhere I look, I see you worshipping.
Paul goes to a pedestal with a bag of money on it
I have seen you worship your money and the things that it can buy. Oh, you are so religious that even your coins say In God We Trust but I wonder if your god isn’t the money itself? You argue over money, you fret over money, you often worry that you won’t have enough, and when you do have enough, you strive to get more. Yes, I see that money is one of your most important gods.
Paul goes to an easel containing framed diplomas and certificates of achievement
But here is another idol I have seen you worship; your achievements, your accomplishments. You strive to gain fame and position and power; you seem to think that titles puff you up; like “doctor” or “teacher” or “president” or “pastor.” You seem to think that once you have achieved a status in life, you are better than the others, and so what you are really worshipping is yourself. Am I wrong?
Paul goes to a full-length mirror
And speaking of worshipping yourself, I have seen you worship human beauty. You spend so much time admiring those who are handsome or beautiful, and you yearn to be admired as well. Someone in your age has said that “beauty is the gold coin of human worth.” If you have beauty, you are valuable. If you are not handsome, you have no value.
Paul goes to a pedestal with a football on it
I have also seen you rise early on Sunday mornings for worship. You gather with friends and family and share in feasts. You raise your voices, you cry for joy, and you get up and do it again next Sunday. What do you call this god? Is it “football?” Or “basketball?” Or “golf?” Whatever its name, this god has a hold on your hearts and your minds and often squeezes out the other gods in your life.
But let me tell you about the unknown God, or the lesser known God. His name is Jesus, and he died for you. He is a jealous God. He wants your heart. And if you heart is too full with these other things that you worship by day and by night, this God will find a way to get your attention. He longs to be the God who brings you joy, and peace, and security, and ultimately, eternal life. This God is as near as a prayer, and if you trust this God, he will never leave you. Not ever. Of all the gods I have known in my life, this is the one to trust in and believe. Follow him with your heart and with your mind. Amen.