God Made Known
Acts 17:16 – 34
God made known
When God is unknown …
A few years ago, my wife, Kathy and I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. And as you do, we stood for a moment, in the Hall of Memory, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
You probably know, that buried in that spot, are the remains of an unknown Australian soldier, recovered from a cemetery in France. And this soldier, buried in his Tasmanian Blackwood coffin, his bayonet at his side, and sprig of wattle on his chest, he represents all Australians who have been killed in war, especially those whose earthly remains have never been recovered.
Lots of other countries have a similar tomb,
Under the Arc de Triumph, in Paris,
In the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.
We feel a cultural and moral obligation to honour those from our country, who have been killed in war, but we recognise that it’s hard to honour those we don’t know, those who have never been identified.
And so we have a tomb, in honour of the unknown.
In that part of the Bible, from book of Acts that we read earlier, the citizens of the ancient city of Athens, had a similar challenge when it came to honouring their gods.
The Greek Pantheon had numerous gods, and religions from other countries had taken hold in Athens, cementing its place as the centre of culture and religion in the known world. And each of those religions brought new gods for the Athenians to honour and worship.
Did you notice how Luke, the eye-witness historian, who wrote the book of Acts described the city? Verse 16, While Paul was waiting for them, his friends, in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
See the Athenians erected statues, and altars, and idols, for all the gods they knew about. One ancient writer even commented that in Athens “it was easier to find a god, than a man”!
But what do you do for any other god that might be out there, that you haven’t heard about yet?
How do you make sure you don’t leave one out?!
Well, the solution for these first century Athenians, was to set up an altar, dedicated, verse 23, “to an unknown god”.
And then that god can be honoured, even though you don’t know who he, she, or it is.
We live in a world of religious options
But of course, the challenge of being surrounded by religious options, isn’t something just limited to first century Athens.
Our world is a world of religious alternatives.
Some of you know I had long service leave last year, and so while my children were enjoying swimming pools, I was supervising them, while also engaging in a little bit of Internet shopping!
I discovered that in the “Religion” section, of the Amazon.com bookstore, there are 1 million, 331 thousand, 210 books for sale.
1 million, 331 thousand, 210 different ways to God!
You can choose from:
Raelism, founded by a French race car driver, who was abducted by aliens,
Naturally there’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam,
There’s the World Church of the Creator, which doesn’t actually believe in a Creator, doesn’t believe in God at all, and as it turns out, is a racist, white separatist organisation.
There are 760 thousand books about Christianity., including one, as it happens, by me, which let me tell you, is on the most popular list! It’s the one million, 360 thousdandth most popular book on all of Amazon!
I also discovered a book called “Ina May’s guide to childbirth”, which for reasons beyond my comprehension, is categorised under the occult!
Friends, our streets may not be filled, with altars and idols, yet we are, just like the first Century Athenians, standing in a religious supermarket, filled with countless competing claims, offering to make God known.
You only need to drive through Mount Barker, or across the South Coast, to we see the signs beside the road, and in shop windows promoting all manner of self-help programs,
Promises to connect you with the true Spirit, or Creator, or Life-force or whatever it is that you might be seeking,
Should we just encourage people to find their own way . whichever religion they think works for them?
Well, have a look at how the Apostle Paul, responds to the abundance of religious options and practices he finds in Athens.
And whether you’re here today thinking, “What does my faith in Jesus mean for a pluralistic society?”
Or “should we really be planting another church in a region where people already believe lots of things”,
Or whether you’re with us today because you’ve come to find out about Christianity, and what Jesus is all about,
Whatever our question, I’m convinced we’ll find some really helpful answers here.
There is good news for people who think God is unknown
So the Apostle Paul, arrives in the city of Athens, and he’s distressed that the city is full of idols.
That is, he sees people pursing “gods”, that he knows to be false,
That he knows can never deliver what they promise,
Can never lead to the true God,
Can never give significance, or purpose, or lasting satisfaction.
His heart breaks, and so he starts to talk about Jesus. Verse 17, 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.
Without a doubt, this is a very abbreviated version of what Paul said in Athens. The speech that Paul gives, beginning in verse 22, is less than 300 words. If I was preaching that, we’d be out of here in less than 2 minutes!
So Luke the historian is writing in shorthand so he can fit in everything he wants to record, but we don’t have to look too far to work out what the detail is. Just up in the beginning of this chapter, Luke has taken the time, to tell us, exactly what Paul says, whenever he meets people.
The content of Paul’s conversation, is printed in on your outline, As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you, is the Messiah,” he said
In the synagogue or in the marketplace, basically to anyone who will listen, Paul says, “let me tell you about Jesus.”
To people, for whom God is unknown, what’s Paul’s solution?
How can people who don’t know God find out about God?
Well, it might sound pretty boring to us, not very revolutionary, but Paul opens the Bible, and he talks about Jesus.
That’s his pattern for ministry, Luke says.
Those of you who are going from here to begin a new church, if ever you become unclear, what it is that you are to be on about,
If ever you need to stop and ground yourself, “What is it that we do, again?”
Here is your answer, Jesus, from the Scriptures.
Jesus, and the resurrection, verse 18,
Jesus, as he’s presented to us in the Bible,
Jesus, who suffered the death and separation from God that we deserved, because of how we’ve lived our lives with no thought for God,
Jesus, who was raised from the dead, as a vindication of his claims, as a guarantee, that he really is able to offer relationship with God.
And if you are here at Trinity today because you’re trying to find out about God, well here’s our promise to you,
We won’t tell you, simply our thoughts,
We won’t present you with a range of possible options from which you can choose one that seems to suit you best.
We will point you to the Bible.
We will open the Bible with you, so you can learn of Jesus, who suffered, died, and was raised, so that you can know God.
To hear that Jesus, is the answer to the problem of God being unknown, might be completely new and foreign to you, it certainly was for some of those in Athens. While Paul was teaching the Bible, and talking about Jesus, verse 18, 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.
The Epicureans taught that either there were no gods, or if they did exist, they were so distant, that they had no impact on the lives of humans.
The Stoics on the other hand, thought that God was just a cosmic unity encompassing the whole world, a bit like The Force, in Star Wars, but less helpful! There was no “Use the Force, Luke” in Stoicism, you had to do everything yourself. In fact the Stoics’ great goal was self-sufficiency. God couldn’t help you at all.
The Epicureans didn’t believe in any kind of existence after death, The Stoics thought that only the soul survived beyond the grave.
And so Paul’s message, about Jesus, God’s king who rules over the world, and who continues to rule because he was raised from the dead!, It’s completely new to them.
They call him a babbler, that is, they think he’s done a “cut and paste job”, a bit of this religion, a bit of that religion, and smoosh it all together.
If you’re a Christian, and you’ve ever thought “the people I know, have no idea, of the truth of gospel message”, that’s exactly the situation Paul finds himself in, and so, what does he do?, day by day, verse 2, he talks about Jesus.
Eventually, these strange ideas verse 20, become so perplexing to the people, that they bring Paul to a meeting of the Areopagus.
The Areopagus was a hill in Athens, and on the hill, or nearby, a council met, which served as a civil and criminal court, and also it had some jurisdiction in religious matters.
But did you notice the extra detail Luke gives us about these very religious Athenians? Verse 21, (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there, spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
They don’t actually seem to be interested in the truth.
They’re not particularly eager to work out if something in their lives needs to change in the light of what Paul’s saying.
They’re keen to hear, simply because what they’re hearing is a novelty.
Like I imagine, many of your friends, and certainly many of my friends, the Athenians are perfectly happy, not knowing the truth about God.
They are far from God, but they’re not seeking him out.
Sincerity is no substitute for truth
And so Paul is convinced, that even though the Athenians were very sincere, they still need to hear the truth about God.
Have a look from verse 22 with me, 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.
The Athenians are so religious, they’ve got every god they know of, and then some covered.
And so, when Paul finds himself standing before the religious leaders of the city, what does he do?
Does he congratulate them on their sincerity?
Does he say, “Well, you’ve got off to a good start, let me give you some tips on how to improve your religious practice?
No, he doesn’t does he?
He says, “Let me tell you the truth”, “Let me make known to you, what you don’t know.
Sincerity is no substitute for truth.
However, that is the spiritual motto of our age, isn’t it?
“It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.”
“It doesn’t matter which path you’re on, as long as you follow it, it will get you to God”
But friends, nothing could be further from the truth!
In no area of our lives, does sincerity matter more than truth.
In no part of your life, do you think that’s actually how things work.
In the news again this week, Australians who have been duped in online dating scams. They sincerely believed they were in love,
Sincerely believed they had found their soulmate,
Sincerely believed they knew, who they were talking to on the Internet, when in fact the person they knew they were in love with, was a con artist in Nigeria!
Sincerity is no substitute for truth.
5 years ago today, we started this church, because we knew that this region is filled with people, who are very sincere in their beliefs, but who do not know God.
And we longed for them to hear the truth about God, as made known in Jesus.
The entire South Coast region, is filled with people who sincerely believe all manner of things, about God,
About how to get to God,
But they do not know God.
That’s a good reason to send our dear friends from here, to start a new church at Victor.
Simply being sincere is just not enough.
If the internet dating victim had seen the person at the other of the relationship as they really were, they wouldn’t be broken-hearted and out of pocket, would they?
We have to see God as he really is!, And not swallow some false substitute for God.
Look at verse 24 with me, “ “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 himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
Now, although Paul’s pattern when he was in a synagogue, among Jewish people, was to teach from the Old Testament Scriptures, here in the Areopagus, he’s talking to people who have no understanding of the Old Testament, just like most of the people we mix with every day, so he’s not quoting the Bible. But he is very much using the language of the Bible, isn’t he?
The God who made the world and everything in it, m
Lord of heaven and earth,
does not live in temples built by human hands.
God who is creator, and lord over all, why on earth would he live in temples built by hands?
God made everything, including people, so why would God need people, to make him somewhere to live?!
No, God doesn’t need anything from us. We get everything from him.
There’s no way we can make God owe us,
We don’t get involved in ministry,
Or join a church,
Or plant a church,
Or give money,
Or do good things,
Or be kind to strangers, to put God in our debt!
God doesn’t need our time or money any more than he needs us to build him somewhere to live!
The Athenians were so focussed on making houses for God, temples and shrines, that it never occurred to them, that if their gods were any kind of gods at all, they wouldn’t need their creatures to build a home for them!
To understand God as anything other than, the Lord of heaven and earth, is to have a false picture of God,
Is to have the Nigerian dating scam, picture of God,
A false picture, that can only lead to disappointment, and hurt.
But notice also that the God of the Bible who Paul proclaims, he’s not just into the big picture, Lord of heaven and earth, he’s also interested in the personal details of life. he marked out their appointed times in history, verse 26, and the boundaries of their lands.
And as we saw last week, those of you who were with us, since God is Lord of heaven and earth there is nowhere you can point to on the map, where God’s Word doesn’t need to be spoken.
He is Lord of the South Coast,
He is Lord of Mount Barker,
He is Lord of each and every person in this room.
That is, God has something to say about every aspect of life.
God is Lord, of everything we do.
God has something to say about how we spend our money,
How we use our time,
How we order our priorities,
Our politics, God has something to say about that.
As much as we might be tempted to, we can’t try and keep God confined to one tiny part of our life, like a little kid with a jack in the box, trying to squish it back in, and shut the lid on it.
And do you see, the error is the same, whether we’ve made a god out of stone, or whether we’re trying to convince ourselves that God is somehow different to what he really is.
If I think, “Well, I believe in the God of the Bible, but I don’t think he is Lord over this particular part of my life”, that’s just as much a false picture of God, as my friend who says, “I believe that God is in the animals and the trees.”
God gives a gracious encouragement - He is not far off!
God is Lord of heaven and earth, which is majestic and awe-inspiring, and perhaps makes him sound kind of scary, but Paul also has a word of encouragement:, God is not far off!
He’s not far away, unreachable and uninvolved like those Epicurean philosophers thought.
Pick it up with me in the middle of verse 26 again, he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 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
Do you see, God has made himself known.
Imagine that you were one of those Epicureans in Athens, who pictured God as far-off and removed,
Or one of the Stoics, who’d been told all their lives, you have to be entirely self-sufficient, you’ll get no help from God at all.
Actually it’s not so hard for us to imagine, is it? We know lots of people who think like this, who are convinced that God is out there somewhere, unknown and unknowable,
Or people who can’t see that God offers them anything they need.
And maybe that’s you, Maybe that’s your picture of God;,
God is not far off, says Paul, actually, he’s within arm’s reach.
Not because you’ve stumbled onto him, in fact you’ll never find him, unless you turn to where God has made himself known.
But he has brought himself close, he’s broken into our world.
The message of Christianity, is that God turned up in the world, in the person of Jesus Christ.
It is in Jesus that we can see God,
In Jesus we can know God.
In the current edition of National Geographic there’s an article about American Defence Force personnel, who have suffered traumatic brain injury, in warzones.
And obviously, brain injury, terribly complex, medically and emotionally, often difficult for the soldiers to talk about what they’re really like inside, so there’s a project where they get these injured soldiers to paint a mask, a face mask. They paint a face, that shows what they’re really thinking and feeling.
See the message of Christianity, is that God didn’t just put on a mask, to show us what he’s really like, he took on a whole body.
When God enters the world in the person of Jesus, suddenly it’s possible to see God.
To really know God.
And because it’s now possible to know, God gives a loving command: “Repent!”
God gives a loving command – repent!
See verse 29, 29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands, all people everywhere to repent
How foolish it is to think that you can make something, that would be an adequate substitute or reflection of God.
And every now and then, our daughter Abby, who’s 3, will show me a picture that she’s drawn, and she’ll tell me it’s a picture of me.
And, you know, I tell her what a great job she’s done, because, I’m a loving father, but if you ever see one of Abby’s pictures,
please don’t think that’s an adequate representation of me!
If you want to know what I’m like, please come and talk to me, don’t rely on Abby’s fingerpainting!
Do you see what Paul is saying?
Don’t think that you can adequately represent God the creator, with something that you can make,
To which, in the 21st Century we might add, don’t think that you can adequately sum up God, by your cleverness,
You can’t just decide, arrive at a conclusion of what you think God is like,
It is foolish to think that,
And Paul now says, that kind of ignorance, is culpable.
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent
Remember we’ve got Luke’s abbreviated version of Paul’s speech, so let me unpack it a little.
In the past, that is, before God made himself known in the person of Jesus,
In the past, God didn’t judge human sin the way it deserved.
It’s not to say that that God approved of it,
Or thought it didn’t matter,
But that in his kindness, God held off on that judgement, the necessary judgment for sin and evil, and let’s be honest, we want God to judge sin and evil in its various forms.
We want just judgment!
Those of you who are students, the last time you submitted an assignment to be marked, you were counting on just judgment, weren’t you?
The last time you played sport, and you appealed to the referee, or maybe you were watching sport, and were yelling at the referee through your TV, you do that because you demand just judgment.
You believe in a standard, and you demand that people are held to that standard,
Well that judgment is coming!
And because now God has made himself known, there is no excuse for ignorance.
There is no excuse for saying, “I don’t know what God is like”
Or “I don’t know what God wants from me.”
And so God issues a gracious command: “Repent!”
Now, repent just means to turn to God. It just means to stop living with ourselves as number 1, and put God’s king Jesus, as number 1.
It means to believe that God has made it possible for us to come to him, despite the fact that we’ve ignored him and rejected his pattern for life.
It means to turn to the God who has made himself known in Jesus, because it’s Jesus who will judge our sin and rebellion. And did you see that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the proof of that?
Look at verse 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.
God will judge sin.
The penalty for living in God’s world, but living as if God doesn’t exist, will have to be paid.
God has appointed Jesus as the judge,
And because of that certain just judgment, God lovingly commands people to repent.
Don’t imagine that a command can’t be loving. Any parent who’s ever yelled at their child to watch out for a car, or to step away from the water’s edge, knows that a command can spring from love.
God commands all people everywhere, to repent.
Why, 5 years ago, did we start a new church for the Mount Barker region?
Because God commands all people everywhere, to repent.
We want people in this region, to hear the good news of Jesus, and to believe he took the death that they deserved, so that their rebellion against God can be forgiven.
Why are we commissioning a group from here, who will be the beginnings of a new church at Victor?,
Because God commands all people everywhere, to repent, including on the South Coast, and we are convinced, that the best way for men and women who love Jesus, to introduce other people to Jesus, is by planting new churches. And in those churches, we pray, people will hear of Jesus who died for them.
Why are we celebrating a new beginning today, back to one gathering, in a larger facility, that we pray will enable us to plant more churches, and start new congregations?
Because God commands all people everywhere, to repent.
All people everywhere.
I’m sure you’ve seen those signs on the Freeway exits, “Wrong Way! Go back!”
I hope you’ve only ever seen them in your rear-view mirror, actually!
Do they say “Go back, unless you’re driving a white Commodore”
Go back, unless you have more than 3 people in your car.
Go back, unless it’s between 3 and 4 PM on a school day.
No! It just says “Go back, you’re going the wrong way.”
God lovingly commands all people everywhere to repent
He has made himself known.
Don’t treat the known as unknown
Now, it can sound like humility, can’t it, to say “Well, I don’t know much about God, I’m a bit agnostic really”
But it’s not humility to be ignorant of God, when God has made himself known. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
It’s extreme arrogance.
Interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in the Arlington National Cemetery in the US, were the remains of unknown American servicemen from World Wars 1 and 2, from Korea, and from Vietnam.
In 1998, the remains of the Vietnam War unknown, were exhumed, and through DNA testing, were found to be the earthly remains of Air Force Lieutenant Michael Blassie, who was shot down over Vietnam in 1972.
The unknown, was now known.
What do you do in that situation?!
You can’t put the body of a known soldier, back in the tomb of the unknown soldier.
And so that tomb to the unknown, is now empty.
It would be an horrific offence, to continue to call him unknown, when we know exactly who he is.