THE GOSPEL OF THE UNKNOWN GOD (Acts 17:16-31)
The work of the Gospel is not easy in Australia today. Our society has changed dramatically during the past quarter century. It is now a very secular society in which the church, at best, is only seen to be of marginal importance. Apart from a shrinking minority who attend church regularly it would be easy to wonder if anyone cares.
Professor David Tacey of Monash University, a few years ago, published a best seller titled The Spirituality Revolution. In it he says ‘Despite the exodus from organized religion in our society, there is also a profound sense of spiritual emptiness, and a desperate search for a transcendent reality beyond the confines of the material world …It is our secular society realizing that it has been running on empty... and recognizes that we’ve outgrown the ideals and values of the early scientific era which viewed individuals as sort of efficient machines.’
Sadly, that sense of spiritual awareness doesn’t usually find expression in church attendance. It is as though secular people today seem to differentiate between what the churches offer and what they think of as ‘spirituality’. The church to many represents ‘religion’ and ‘respectability’, whereas what they are looking for is a sense of connectedness to something bigger than themselves.
Those of us who care about the church and its mission in our society need to be aware of the dramatic change that has taken place during this past generation. Christendom – by which I mean a society that consciously identifies itself as Christianand in which the Church is central to its life – has largely disappeared from the Western World.
We are now in a missionary environment; called to take the Gospel beyond the four walls of the church into the market places of life.
However, it is important that we pay attention to the social context in which we do this because it has serious implications for the way we do it. Traditionally we have looked to Peter’s sermon to the people in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost as our model for preaching the gospel. You probably know the one I mean, it’s in Acts chapter 2.
Thousands of Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem for one of the great religious feast days. These were people who had grown up with the words of the Old Testament, and Peter’s message was couched in those familiar words and prophecies. He used their own scriptures to show how Jesus was the fulfillment of everything they had been taught - the Messiah they’d long waited for.
The result of his sermon was a great sense of guilt that fell on the crowd and they begged him to tell them what they should do. His answer was once again couched in the words and concepts so familiar to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” More than 3000 people were converted.
However, a few years later, the Apostle Paul preached a sermon to the Athenians at a place called Mars Hill. His approach was quite different to Peter’s. Mars Hill was where the philosophers used to gather to talk and listen – and if there was one thing the Athenians loved it was philosophy. As Paul walked around, he was distressed by all the superstition and idolatry - So different from Jerusalem.
So, Paul didn’t start with a reference to an Old Testament prophecy, as Peter did – they wouldn’t have known Joel from Superman. Instead he started with a reference to the hopes and aspirations that were already there in their own religious background. And from there he went on to show how Jesus was the fulfillment of their deepest needs.
He told them that he had noticed they were a very religious people and that amongst the many altars and idols he had seen there was one altar whose inscription was “To the Unknown God.” And, having tapped into their spiritual consciousness, he went on to say, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” And from there he went on to preach the gospel of Jesus.
To understand why this reference to the altar of the Unknown God caught their attention, you need to know the history behind it. 600 years earlier there had been a dreadful plague in Athens. People made sacrifices to all the Gods they believed in, from their local favourites right up to Zeus, whom they believed to be the king of the gods. But nothing happened, the plague continued to devastate them.
Then someone suggested they send for a wise old philosopher who lived in Crete. His name was Epimenides. When Epimenides arrived he advised them to gather a flock of black and white sheep, drove them to Mars Hill and then let them loose. He told the people to follow at a distance and then, at the place where the sheep first laid down there to sacrifice the sheep to whatever god had an altar nearby. But if there were no god with an altar there, they were to build an altar to the Unknown Godand offer sacrifice there.
Years later, the philosopher Diogenes recorded what happened. At the place where the sheep lay down there was no altar to any known god. So, they built there the altar to the Unknown Godand made sacrifice. And the plague stopped.
That story was as familiar to the Athenians as the crossing of the Red Sea was to the Jews. The inscription on that altar reminded the Athenians that in their hour of greatest need their supposed gods had been unable to deliver them; but the Unknown Godhad.
And so, Paul took their minds back to that story that was so meaningful to them and said, in effect, “for centuries you have known about another God, even though you don’t know his name or his teachings. Well this is the very one whom I’ve come to proclaim and to tell you that you can both seek him and find him in his son Jesus whom he sent amongst us and raised from the dead.”
The Athenians were intellectually arrogant, but also worldly and superstitious. But underneath that sophisticated exterior Paul recognized in some of them a spiritual hunger their philosophy could not satisfy. So, he used the stories and poetry that expressed this hunger and then showed how Jesus was the fulfillment of it.
We today are in a similar position. We are called to witness in a society that no longer knows the stories of the Bible and is mostly several generations removed from any meaningful contact with the church. Like Paul’s Athenians it is an intellectually arrogant, worldly and superstitious. But underneath we too see in many the signs of spiritual hunger. The great challenge to us is to be able to tap into that spiritual hunger and say "What you are searching for is the very thing we are talking about- that through faith in Jesus you can find God."
You may remember that we got a taste of this here in our Sunday morning service about a year ago. Fred David interviewed three young women who have been participating in the spiritual group that he and Nerrida started.
Most of the people in the group are not practicing Christians, and some have been quite critical of the church. Nevertheless, they felt drawn to the atmosphere of our heritage chapeland used to meet regularly to talk and share their own journeys.
One of them, who helps run the Need a Feed coffee van told us how she’d been awakened several times in the early hours of the morning by what she described as a voice which told her to start writing. She read to us some of the things she’d written; and they were quite extraordinary. It reminded me of that classic book God Calling.
She then told us how she served coffee one morning to a guy with dreadlocks, who then said he wanted to say a prayer for her, which he did, and she found herself unable to stop weeping.
Anyway, the outcome of this story is that both she and Shaz, who runs Need a Feed, confessed publicly that morning that they had given their hearts to Jesus.
Then, the third young woman from the group told us how she’d left the church years ago, because it had left her empty and unfulfilled. But she was now in the process of returning to the church, having found God outside of it.
And that, I believe, gives us an indication of how God is calling us to do mission today; to become seriously engaged in the lives of people who long to find a power in their lives to overcome the things that have got them beaten, and by word and deed, to say, “the something you are looking for is the very Jesus we are talking about.”
Taking the Gospel out beyond the walls of the church into the market place is how the early Christians began their witness to Jesus, and that’s how we have to do it in this missionary environment we are called to minister in.
It’s said that the future belongs to the defined, the determinedand the disciplined.The definedare those who know what they are here for. The determinedare those who won’t be put off by difficulties. The disciplinedare those who are focused and get on with the job.
I doubt there’s never been a time when the Church has had so many consultations and mission plans formed as today – most of which get filed away and forgotten. We’ve had our consultations, and we have our Mission Plan. Our only need now is to bedefined, determined and disciplined,and like Nike, just do it!
Photo credit: Vegard Ryan. Published under creative commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/