Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Declaration of Something New

Preached on Sunday, July 2, 2017

Scripture reading: Acts 17:16-34

Photos from Independence Celebrations
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
July 3-4, 2017
A new garden-lover asked a master gardener for advice. “What would be good me to plant in an area where we get very little rain? And my best place for a garden has too little afternoon sun, clay soil, and it sits on a rocky ledge?” The master gardener thought for a moment and asked, “How about a flagpole?”
By the time he left Athens, Paul may have felt like he’d been trying to plant a garden in a spot like that. Athens was the one spot where he had been least persecuted, and yet the least accepted. Still, I think, many have underestimated his success in Athens. Paul made a dent in it for Jesus.
It hadn’t been Paul’s plan to plant anything in Athens. He was there by accident. He had simply been kicked out of everywhere else along the way. His only real plan was to wait there for his friends and helpers to catch up with him. His friends (Timothy and Silas) were slow in coming because it took them a lot longer to get kicked out of a place than it did for Paul.
Whatever the plan, the waiting seemed endless. Paul grew impatient and agitated, which might explain why he was so good at teaching patience and peace to us.
If Paul had been a tourist, or an historian, he should have loved Athens. Athens was a beautiful city: the cultural heartland of ancient Greece. It was full of beautiful temples and statuary. But the white marble statues were painted in vivid living color, and a lot of them were naked, and a lot of them portrayed gods and goddesses that were being actively worshiped by everyone there. That is now mostly all in the past, and those statues and temples have become admired as great art and architecture.
It would have bothered us as much as it bothered Paul, to see the evidence that the temple of the goddess of love served as a house of prostitution. Chariot salesmen saw nothing wrong with asking the god of business (Hermes) for help in making sales. People in troubled times would burn incense to the dead emperor Augustus. Would we have smiled at this, snapped our photos, and thought it was all so quaint and picturesque?
Paul was distressed by this. So, he stopped waiting and he went to work for Jesus. Paul did what he was so good at: sharing his faith, sharing how strong and real Jesus is, and how good it is to know him. For Paul, the clinching sign of Jesus’ power was shown by his resurrection from the dead.
Resurrection, in Greek, is Anastasia. Anastasia sounded like the fancy name of a goddess. Greek gods often came pairs: male and female, husband and wife. Jesus and Anastasia: were they a foreign god and goddess pair? The Athenians wondered.
To Paul’s amazement, he wasn’t kicked out of town, but he was called to court to explain himself.
Some people were laughing at him, calling him a “babbler”. If Paul spoke the way he wrote, in the letters we have of his, it might explain the laughter. The “babbler” word, in Greek, is hard to translate. It literally means “seed-picker”; like a bird pecking here, and pecking there, hopping from place to place, seemingly at random. Paul, as a speaker, might not have been so easy to follow. What made up for this was his enthusiasm and creativity.
Luke tells us that the people of Athens loved to talk more than anything. So, they didn’t mind encouraging even a babbler to join in their talk.
Let’s look at the story of Paul in Athens. Let’s think about the strange, mixed response he got there: laughter, interest, and faith. Paul tried to translate the message of Jesus into their thought patterns. He tried to shed a light into the weakest and neediest places of their ways of thinking.
The people of Athens had built many little philosophical worlds in their own minds to help them deal with reality, and with the spiritual reality that was populated by their gods and goddesses, and yet also pointed to something beyond those many gods and goddesses.
Some of their philosophers, for a long time, wondered if there was one thing, or one single source, of everything. Paul had to open up those little worlds, and his efforts only succeeded for a few of those who heard him: at least at the start.
Luke mentions two main groups of philosophers: The Epicureans and the Stoics.
The Epicureans taught that the most important thing was to be happy. Some of them really went overboard on that, and these have plenty of followers today, although I don’t know anyone who calls themselves an epicurean. There were party-animal epicureans. Their philosophy of life was, “eat, drink, and be merry, and let the good times roll.”
The stricter epicureans were fairly serious people. They said that, the way life is, it’s hard work to be truly happy in the end, especially if you go overboard. The serious epicureans said to seek the good life by setting your sights a little lower. Live a quiet life. Try not to let yourself get involved in other people’s troubles. Don’t expect too much; and, then, you won’t be disappointed.
They read this lesson into their history, which was easy for them to do. Four centuries earlier, the Greek city states (especially Sparta and Athens) became strong and wealthy. Sparta and Athens became ambitious, and proud, and they basically exhausted themselves in a twenty-seven year-long war (the Peloponnesian War).
Sparta won, and went straight into decline. Athens was conquered, but kept its fame. Everyone wanted to go to Athens: to see, and listen, and learn.
Pride and ambition had reduced Athens to being a tourist destination. So, the epicureans said: be satisfied with a little. Keep a low profile.
There was, in Athens, at least one altar dedicated to An Unknown God. The Greeks knew about lots and lots of gods, and it was quite a lot of work to keep on the good side of them all. Then someone had the horrifying thought: what if there was a god that no one knew about, and what if that god felt left out and got mad at them for forgetting?
People could get into a lot of trouble because of this. So, they built the Altar to the Unknown God, in order to cover all their bases.
As long as they had that altar, and left offerings on it, they didn’t worry whether he remained unknown. They were satisfied to keep it that way. The epicureans believed there couldn’t be any true contact with the divine, anyway, so why bother?
Once, in our own early history, there was a temptation to a political way of keeping your sights low. In colonial times, in America, Britain began trying to make real money off her colonies. The King and Parliament took away the colonists many of their existing legal rights to pass their own laws, and set their own taxes, and elect their own officials. Some of the colonists were tempted to just go along with it, set their sights low, and make the best of it. They had always thought of themselves as loyal British citizens, and so it seemed like treason to stand up for their old freedoms.
One of the leaders in Massachusetts, named William Prescott, wrote against this temptation: “Our forefathers passed the vast Atlantic, spent their blood and treasure, that they might enjoy their liberties, both civil and religious, and transmit them to their posterity. Now, if we give them up, can our children rise up and call us blessed? Let us all be of one heart, and stand fast in that liberty wherewith Christ has made us free….”
Some early Americans refused to let go of a spirit of adventure; a desire not to make the best of things as they were. That refusal to give in made our revolution possible. As you read history, you discover that this spirit of adventure had been in decline, and only revived about forty to thirty years before our revolution, during the time called “The Great Awakening”. It came from a spiritual revival that swept the colonies. The adventure of becoming spiritually alive, within, had made other adventures and revolutions possible.
When Paul preached in Athens, he quoted words written when it was still an adventure to be Greek. In those earlier days, centuries before Christ, they had known as much of a spiritual adventure as they were capable of having before the gospel came. These were words about one God, and this is how they went: “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” “We are indeed his offspring.”
It may have embarrassed Paul’s hearers to be reminded that they had left their adventures behind them, and that they had sunk to the level of being content to let an unknown God remain unknown.
The days of groping are over, Paul said. Yet many things remain unknown for us. The epicureans kept their sights low, for fear of being disappointed.
Have you ever been afraid of being disappointed in God? Have you ever been afraid to pray? Have you been afraid to pray for someone to be healed, or for yourself to receive guidance and direction?
Of course, we know that God is God, and we aren’t God. We know that God will only answer our prayers as he knows is best for us; but have you ever prayed to know God’s will and then found yourself too fearful to listen for the answer?
There are times when I’m afraid to know God’s will, because, then, I might have to do something about it. For instance, if I know God desires you to have more freedom in sharing your faith with others, then I know that I will need to do it more myself. And, if I’m afraid to live out my life with energy in the will of God, isn’t it because I’m afraid I’ll fall on my face? And, if I’m afraid of that, isn’t it because I’m afraid that God won’t help me? And, if I’m afraid he won’t help me to do what he wants, isn’t that because I still don’t know him and trust him well enough?
There is a tremendous part of his love and power that are unknown to me. George MacDonald says, “Faith is doing what God says.” Until I do that, I won’t know much of him, or be much like Jesus who died for me to make me a child of God. I want to “live, and move, and have my being” in Jesus.
For the people of Athens, their little world of low expectations kept them in the dark.
Another little world that kept them from responding to Jesus was the world of the past. You didn’t have to be a philosopher to come under the spell of the past in Athens. The hill called the Areopagus, or the Hill of Mars, on which Paul and his audience stood, or the court building in which Paul may have spoken, was surrounded by monuments of the past and the homes of great men long dead. They looked at the past and whispered: “What if?” and “If Only?”
They relived old battles and they placed the blame for the failures of long ago.
There’s a saying that goes like this: “We are too soon old and too late smart.” Athens was an old, old city, in Paul’s day; and even the young people in it were old and set in their ways, even though Luke says that they loved talking about the latest thing. They loved talking, just as long as it didn’t lead to doing. Even the young were old.
Paul gave them his theory of history. “God made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them, and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps feel after him and find him.” (Acts 17:24-27)
Paul spoke to people who had built up a world of attitudes that taught them to see the past as lost opportunities for success that made every new possibility impossible. For them, knowledge had come too late.
Not so, said Paul. The past wasn’t only your chance for getting what you wish you had. The past was a challenge to feel after God and find him. You can still do that, now. That invitation has not passed.
Paul turned the focus to the present. Paul said: “But now, God commands…” (Acts 17:30) Paul’s call (God’s call) to repent means two things. It means to reverse and go back to God’s place for you to start. It also means having a new mind, and having (within you) a new “everything within” that comes from God, not from yourself. That becomes the new present.
That present (God’s present) is holy. God overlooks the past ignorance, the missed chances, for the sake of the holy present, now.
There is such a thing as lost opportunity. Those lost opportunities do affect the present.
As individuals, as a congregation, as a community, and as a nation, we live with the consequences of our choices; but this is God’s present moment. The whole purpose can get going again, now. The purpose, even of the failures, is…what? The purpose is repentance. It’s a changed mind, a changed feeling, a changed heart, a changed state of faith and hope and love.
The ancient world didn’t believe in change, except as a change for the worse. Are we any different? Do we believe that God could turn a world like ours around? Do we believe the course of things can change? Do we believe that we can change?
The state of our faith may be such that only God still believes that there can be a new direction, or a new chance. If only God were more realistic! The word of God, through Paul, says that everything else was times of ignorance, but now…. Change in you and change in me, and change in the most surprising things, if only we will not be prejudiced against God’s will by the failures of our past. The past cannot be changed, but now…now, what will we do?
The other little world of philosophy was the stoic world. One of their teachings was “self-sufficiency” or “self-mastery”. It was a kind of independence. Part of it was not letting the world and the people in it sap your strength. Don’t depend on these too much. Be responsible for yourself. Pull yourself together. Pull yourself up. You have ability within you, if you choose. The stoics taught this.
The stoic way is (in many ways) the American way. The American Founders were trained in the old classical philosophies, and Stoicism was a favorite of theirs. But it really only became the American way as the Great Awakening receded in their memories.
If you know much about Benjamin Franklin, his words, spoken at Independence Hall, at the Constitutional Convention, may surprise you. Franklin said: “In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. And have we now forgotten this powerful friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need his assistance?”
Paul pointed to dependence on The One who rose from the dead. He said very little about this in our record of his speech on the Hill of Mars: perhaps because the laughter cut him short.
The goal of history for nations (to have the chance to seek, and feel after, and find God) would wind up not in the self-sufficiency that is so popular now, but in a declaration of dependence. Our dependence has to take seriously the words of the Declaration of Independence: “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” Reliance has nothing to do with independence.
We depend not only on God watching out for us daily, but on someone who died and rose from the dead, for us, to make an inner change possible.
This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We know what he is like. We can read about him, and we can meet him for ourselves, if we want, if we ask him in our heart.
Even if we feel good about ourselves and what we have done, here is someone who has done more for us than we can ever do, in return, for him.
We don’t have an unknown God to speculate and make guesses about, although we may have so much more to learn and to know about this God.  We have a God who is a risen Savior, and we can know him, and depend on him.

Just as in Athens, we don’t always make much of a response to this Lord. But, let’s give God, in Jesus, something to work on in us. Let’s give him a great expectation that matches our growing knowledge of him. Let’s give him a willingness to let the present be the start of something new in us. Let’s give him a decision to depend on Jesus who died and rose to be our Savior and our life: life for us and a new life for the people and the world around us.

1 comment:

  1. "...have we now forgotten this powerful friend?'
    Those words spoken about prayer by Ben Franklin, that is something to think about. I will think of them every time I see his picture on a 100 dollar bill (when I see it on an ad on TV, I mean, I don't see too many 100's! LOL.)
    God bless America and God bless us all in the world!