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To an Unknown God

Preached:  August 18, 2013
Scriptures:  Excerpts from Acts 17

The portion of scripture we are looking at today details Paul’s second missionary journey – he had a falling out and parted ways with Barnabas, taking Silas, Timothy and Luke with him instead. He met with success, but also persecution in city after city: Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. In each place the leaders of the synagogues drive him out and Paul barely escapes with this life. When he leaves Berea some students help him escape to Athens, and leave him there to wait for Silas and Timothy.

Left alone in Athens, Paul wanders around the city, much like a tourist. He notices the shrines with their idols and gods— there are shrines everywhere and not to just one god, but hundreds of them! We know from history that Greek culture is well known for its many mythological gods. It seemed there was a god for every occasion under the sun. Zeus was the king of all Greek gods as the god of sky, weather, and fate.  All Greeks wanted Zeus on their side. If you were a fisherman or going to sea, you would want the Greek god Posiedon, god of water, and probably Hermes, the god of travel. If you were childless, then you would offer sacrifices to Hera, the Queen of marriage, and maybe also Aphrodites, the goddess of beauty and love. Farmers would want the favor of Demeter, goddess of agriculture/harvest.

In his tour of the city, one particular altar jumped out at him and gave him pause. On it was inscribed, “To the Unknown God.” Despite the sheer volume of gods represented in their city, the Athenians were still afraid of forgetting and offending some deity, so they had an altar with the inscription: “To the Unknown God.”

As theologically promiscuous as it may have felt to Paul in encountering hundreds of gods there, it was a sign to Paul of something more.   Paul begins conversations, first in the synagogue, then in the marketplace. With Jews and Gentiles. With clerics and philosophers and politicians. He met them wherever they were, speaking to them in their own language, quoting universal wisdom from their own Greek poetry.

Some of the Athenians label him a babbler, while others say, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.”  Five hundred years prior to Paul’s visit, Socrates, was also accused of “proclaiming foreign divinities.”  He was brought to trial at the Areopagus and lost his life.  Paul, too, is risking his life.   But miraculously, he isn’t taken to trial. He is invited to come to the Areopagus, (also called Mars Hill) to present his ideas in a formal way.  “May we know what this new teaching is?”

Paul’s speech begins by complimenting the Athenians. He realizes they were seeking and reaching for something larger than themselves. He recognizes that their obsession with idols and the latest ideas was a sign of something more, providing a distraction and a mask to disguise their spiritual hunger that are just beneath the surface. Instead of telling them that they are pagans on a one way trip to hell, Paul uses an inclusive “we” to tell them that both he and they worship the same God.  He says they are religious in every way erecting many temples, even one to the unknown god. Without knowing it they have been worshipping the same God. He says, “the God who made the world. The Lord of heaven and earth does not live in shrines made by people, nor is God served by human hands, as if God needed anything.”  Paul says,”Our basic nature is to search for this God. We do not know this God, but we search and grope for God, who is like ‘an unknown god’ to us. This does not stop God from knowing us.  Indeed God is not far from each of us. For in God we live and move and have our being.”

Searchers and seekers – Isn’t that what we all are?  Most of us, at some time or other, have a feeling that something is missing.  So we go searching. We are not unlike the ancient Athenians.  Some seek health / happiness, some look for family and belonging, some seek peace and solitude, some seek deeper meaning / enlightenment.   And some seek the depths for the holy and sacred, and find it in God.  St. Augustine’s famous quote sums it up:  “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee, O God.”

And, sometimes our search is all about the unknown  – The “unknowing” makes God feel far away. Native Americans call it “the great Mystery”.    Who am I, who is anyone, to speak of the unknowable Mystery of God?  To speak of eternity, the divine, the beyond, the ultimate, the Ground of All Being?  It is healthy for us to be a bit intimidated by the “unknowness” of God.  A dose of humility every once in a while is good for anyone who is tempted to be certain of God’s exact character.  We can attempt to embrace God’s mystery as an opportunity to practice humility. That which cannot be named, cannot be articulated.  And if it is articulated, we end up having such vastly different experiences of God.

If God is mysterious then we don’t always have to have an answer. God’s mystery allows us to hold in tension other religions and other understandings of God.  It allows someone else to be the ultimate judge, and takes that role away from anyone else who claims to have that authority.  When we know everything about God, heaven and hell, and right and wrong, we think we know who gets “kicked out” and who gets to be “in”.  The “unknown God” plays a bit with those categories of black and white theological thinking.  Add a little mystery, more people get to join the party.

In Paul’s speech, the author emphasizes the universality of this “unknown God.”  The Creator God is available to everyone.  God is “not far from each one of us.”  As a part of our humble response to God’s mystery, we must commit to the practice of inclusivity and universal belonging.

There is an ancient story of a group of blind men who encountered an elephant for the first time and tried to describe it. One touched its giant leg and said, “It’s like a tree.” Another felt its writhing trunk and said, “No, no. It’s like a giant python.” A third encountered the tail and said, “Are you crazy? It’s like a coarse rope!”

God is like the elephant to us, in that none of us have the capacity to see the fullness of God, or conceive of the total majesty/mystery of God.  Yet this tremendous unknowable God knows us and chooses to be in relationship with us. It’s as though the elephant is kneeling down near us, so as to be less distant and overwhelming.

What if we took Paul’s advice to look for the God who is not far away, but actually close by?  What if our inward looking led us to see the places in our own lives where God has already been at work, stirring in us the desire for meaning?  What if our outward searching led us to see the places where God has already been at work in the world?

What if our searching could lead us to recognize meaning, happiness, peace, belonging,, that aren’t that far away at all? There are people, as in Athens, who, whether they realize it or not, who are hungry –  hungry for a place in which to connect with God and community in a meaningful way.  Those people may even well be us.  The object of our search is right here, with us and within us.