Scripture: Acts 17:16-33
The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas & Timothy, the angrier he got—all of those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.
He discussed it with the Jews & other likeminded people at their meeting place. And every day he went out on the streets & talked with anyone who happened along. He got to know some of the Epicurean & Stoic intellectuals pretty well through these conversations. Some of them dismissed him with sarcasm: “What a babbler!” But others, listening to him go on about Jesus & the resurrection, were intrigued: “That’s a new slant on the gods. Tell us more.”
These people got together & asked him to make a public presentation over at the Areopagus, where things were a little quieter. They said, “This is a new one on us. We’ve never heard anything quite like it. Where did you come up with this anyway? Explain it so we can understand.” Downtown Athens was a great place for curiosity. There were always people hanging around, natives & tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.
So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus & laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently & know who you’re dealing with.
“The God who made the world & everything in it, this Master of sky & land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race & made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time & space for living so we could seek after God & not just grope around in the dark, but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he is near. We live & move in him; we can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?
“God overlooks that as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known, & he’s calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged & everything will be set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”
At the phrase “raising him from the dead,” the listeners split: Some laughed at him & walked off making jokes; others said, “Let’s do this again. We want to hear more.” But that was it for the day, & so Paul left. But there were still others, it turned out, who were convinced then & there, & stuck with Paul—among them Dionysius the Areopagite & a woman named Damaris.
Three buddies were discussing death & one asked the group: What would you like people to say about you at your funeral? The first said, "He was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community." The second wanted, "He was a great husband & father, who was an example for many to follow." The last man said, “At my funeral I want people to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’"
This was Paul’s topic to the gathered people in Athens. Every day many gathered in the town square to discuss religion & gods & what life means.
The crowd was made up of Epicureans, who believed life is short & ends in nothingness, so have a ball & avoid pain at all costs. Others were Stoics who thought life is pain, God is in everything, & at the end all will be absorbed by God.
Neither group had a lot of good news to make life worthwhile. Largely, they partied, or sat around discussing every new idea that came along, perhaps hoping for some evidence of hope beyond their own despair.
Our day & culture aren’t much different. Everywhere there are parties & empty faces. Look around you & see the parties & pitiful people; we see that there are no long-lasting, satisfying answers for the soul.
People need answers.
Paul’s heart was stirred by the lost-ness of the people. Our hearts ought to be stirred with the lost-ness of America, & our neighbors. Just as Paul saw the fruitlessness of the people’s frantic search for meaning in stone gods & stone-cold religion, we see all manner of fruitcake religion; some that end up in flames (Waco, Texas); some that end up drinking Arsenic-laced Kool-Aid (Jonestown); & some that end up waiting for a Comet that never comes.
We also see people living the Epicurean lifestyle, rejecting any kind of search for God, living for the party & material goods. Our country, our world, our day is defined by pluralism where everything is tolerated, & nothing is really believed.
Yet, deep inside, everyone knows there is a judgment to be feared. We know there is a God. We just want answers. So Paul gave the crowd in Athens (& us) the answer:
Christ is the answer.
The surprising thing then (& now) is that while the Epicureans & Stoics were hanging around the Areopagus waiting for some new theory, Paul simply declared to them the old, old story of Jesus & His love. He told them of the Creator & of God’s love, making possible salvation by Christ’s death on the cross, & His resurrection from the dead. He also told them how there is a judgment coming, & all people need to repent of their sin to be prepared to stand before this God with no name. There will be a time when God will stop waiting, & start judging!
Paul asked the Athenians: What will you do with Christ?
And as so often happens, it’s Easter that got in the way. The resurrection from the dead was too much to believe for Stoics, who believed in the body being forever destroyed, & the spirit simply returning to God; & the Epicureans’ belief in the total destruction of body & soul.
Here, Paul said, was hope - genuine hope beyond sin, death & the grave. In Jesus there is life, abundant & eternal. They couldn’t get beyond their skeptical, “sophisticated,” human knowledge. But, just as some will scoff & turn away from eternal life, so also some will follow. Some always believe.
What will you believe? What decision do you make about Christ? I heard a story of a town that had just purchased a new fire truck, & the city council was meeting over what to do with the old one. After considerable discussion, a council member got up & suggested that they keep the old truck & use it for answering false alarms.
Besides a smile, that story illustrates the simple fact that there are some things you do not find out until it is too late. But this is no false alarm. The most important decision you will ever make in this life is where your soul will spend the next one. You won’t find the answer to that following any new age philosophy, or any old dead religious ideas. Christ – & Christ alone – is the answer!