Worshipping Unknown Gods

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How many of you would call yourself religious?  I I would suspect that many of you might think everybody should be religious?  This world would be a much better place if everyone would just get more religion.  Right?  I hear many people say that.

Here’s my question.  What do you mean by being religious?    Most of us use the term and assume it means to follow Christianity.  In fact, some folks agree and use that definition to call us a bunch of religious nuts.   I looked up the term “religious” in the Urban Dictionary – Have you ever heard of the Urban Dictionary?  It is an excellent source to see how the mainstream secular society defines things.

They define religions as Completing an action without really thinking it through. Just like how religious people ignore reality to follow a faith.  Ouch, see what I mean.  This morning when we read Paul’s sermon on Mars.   He is talking to all of us that say we are religious!

For those that would like to follow along, I will be reading from the Acts of the Apostles in Chapter 17.  Before we start, let me ask this, how many of you would like to have traveled with Paul?  Interesting. Have you ever read the book of Acts?  I’m not so sure I would have.  In this reading today, we are going to jump to verse 16.  Because in verse 1 to 16 you’ll discover that Paul didn’t randomly wind up in Athens – but he was chased out Thessalonica and then barely escaped Berea.

His companions, Simon and Timothy, were probably exhausted and said – hey Paul, here’s a great idea, why don’t you go on ahead to Athens – we’ll catch up with you.  So that’s Paul did.  He went on ahead to a place he’d never been.

Do any of you travel much?  How about outside about your area code?  What do you all do when you go to a new city.  Do you go sightseeing? Maybe check out the local museums or attractions?  When I was younger, I would travel just to go to amusements parks.  Like Six-Flags in Atlanta or Disney World.

Anyone know where the word amusement came from?  To “muse” is the root word and means to think about something.  Put the letter “a” in front of muse, “amuse,” and it means to not think.  Someone that amuses us allows us to “not think,” like a comedian or funny TV show.  The next time you go to Disney remember they are there to amuse you, so you don’t think about the price of those tickets – right?

Well – this is what Paul did – he went sightseeing, but he wasn’t much amused.  It’s said that the city of Athens at his time had 10,0000 people and over 30,000 gods they worshipped.  It’s said it was easier to find a god than a person.  In Paul’s time, Athens was the home of all Western Europe’s learning and philosophy.

This was a place where people went to muse – to think!  All the important muse’ were from Athens.  Plato, Aristotle, Socrates.  Certainly, this was a place that an important thinker like Paul wanted to visit.

Let’s begin in Verse 16 where Paul’s is wandering the streets waiting for Simon and Timothy to arrive.  Acts 17:16 “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  

Right away we learn that this trip was not what Paul was hoping.  It says he was greatly distressed?   The translation for distressed does not do this verse justice but think I know what it means.

I have often traveled to places where I was overwhelmed by the debauchery I witnessed.  Places like San Francisco and people walking around naked.  Or in New York in the 90’s with all the porn movie houses right in Times Square.  You see, when you come from a small town like I did and are suddenly in the middle of something like that, you become distressed!

As Luke says. Paul was distressed!  So, Paul went next to find people he would be comfortable with – at the Synagogue.  Acts 17:17-18 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

We read here that Paul decided to preach the Good News to a group of people that had no clue what he was talking about.  Paul tried to reason with the Epicureans and the Stoics. Who were these people?   These were the same people that we have all around us today.

The Epicureans were what we now call secularist and atheist.  They didn’t believe in any one God.  They thought life should only be for their personal desires   Having a god would get in the way.  Some of you may have heard their famous mantra – “Eat, Drink, and be Merry. For tomorrow we die.”  Sadly, they live for nothing but pleasure.

The other group was the Stoics, and they were Pantheist.  They believed God is everywhere in all things.   “Nature is sacred, trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.”[1]  They are like the original hippies in this country.  Peace man – Far out.  Groovy!  Ok, confession time, who here at one time said “Groovy”  or “Far out?”

I’m not sure if Paul impressed this audience or made them mad because the scripture next says they TOOK him to the innermost part of the city – to the Aeropagus.  This was a vast marketplace where food and trade were sold.  It was also where you found the legal courts, the theatres, the heralds, the debate societies; everything was here.

Acts 17:19-21  “Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  I read this as both hostile and curious!

20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”

Remember earlier, Paul was teaching the Gospel … we are all born sinners that Christ died on the cross for our sins,, and now all we must do is be faithful to him to have eternal life.  Now, suddenly Paul is standing in front of people who had no idea about this new God, let alone his son Jesus.   He was likely wondering how he could explain Christ if they don’t know how the story begins?  The story of creation and sin.  The story of Genesis 1-11.  I think Paul decided to change his tactics.  He chose to use their culture to explain.

Acts 17:22-23 “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

What just happened?  Paul decides not to tell the Good News. In fact – he is going to give them some bad news!  For those that worship many idols, he was about to explain  that they were all obsolete.  It is the “Unknown God” that deserves all the attention!

Acts 17:22-29 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

So right here Paul tells them that there is only one God.  One God that makes all other creations.

26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. Hmm, this sounds like a story from the Tower of Babel.  More Genesis.

The Greeks hearing Paul tell about this one God had never heard such a story.  They believed the man was created from the soil and when they died, the returned to the earth.  Sound familiar?  Who in our culture says we just rot and decay when we die? But now it gets exciting because Paul presses in on them…

27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Paul is telling them – you all have 30,00 idols.  You have no clue who to worship.  But you all do know how it feels to worship blindly, not knowing which god to praise… You are like a blind person stumbling in the dark.   But the real God is standing right next to you “unknown.”  But it gets even better!

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

See what Paul did right there.  He tapped into the local culture and quoted their poets to make his point.

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, just like your poets claim, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.”

Just imagine all the mouths open and jaws hitting the floor.  But Paul doesn’t care –he comes next delivers a final warning they need to hear…

Acts 17:30  “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  

What does repent mean? Repent – To change how you think, to take another path, to look at life differently.

31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Paul is telling them – look you better pay attention because the time is coming soon when you will be judged by this “unknown god.”  If you want proof – let me tell you more about his Son that rose from the dead!

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”   33 At that, Paul left the Council.  34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

Wow – that sure did not turn out like most Theologians and missiologist expected.  Did Paul preach the Gospel?  Did he tell the Aeropagus the Good News?   No – he didn’t.  Did he mention the Cross?  No!  Did he say Christ was the Son of God? No!  Did he mention salvation on the cross?  No!  Did he even pronounce the name Christ or Jesus – No!

Paul did what we all have to learn to do.  He adapted to the culture.  He didn’t race in with Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, when they don’t even know the Father!  How could this audience possibly understand the story of Christ when their god was Loki, or Ra, or Thor who was busy up there making thunderclouds.   No – Paul knew that he had to dial back his testimony to what little they could understand!

But Paul did tell them the truth about their idols.  Didn’t he! Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill was his lesson to the Athenians that they cannot be saved by worshiping random idols.  That the “Unknown God” was the only one true God – and he was getting ready to come back with a vengeance!

I’ve heard many pastors who preach on this scripture say it was Paul’s best Sermon.  I’m not so sure.  I think it was Paul just teaching us how to improvise and witness in a culture that does not know God.

Acts 17:30  “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

I sincerely believe that every moment we spend with idols that distract us from God is time spent in ignorance.  I will close with last words from Jesus speaking in his Sermon on the Mount.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:21-23)

Perhaps we all need to take a survey of the idols in our lives, and our family’s lives.  We all have idols competing for our time.  The question is, do they serve us? Do they make our lives safer and allow us more time to worship the true God?

Or do we serve them?  These are the questions we should all ask God to help us discern.  Are these idols moving us away from our opportunity to be entirely with Jesus Christ?

Remember him? The one that came to in the flesh was beaten and tortured and died so that we may have eternal life.  Should we find the time to believe in him!



[1] Mikhail Gorbachev

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