“It’s All About God”
Texts: Psalm 67
Acts 17: 22-31
By: David D. McDonald
May 17, 2020
NRSV Psalm 67
1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
2 that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
7 May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.
NRSV ACTS 17:22-31
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him--though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
In the days of Paul the Roman communities lived and looked very different then the Hebrew communities. The Romans had quickly assimilated Greek thought and many of their religious practices. To be sure, they had renamed their gods and expanded the Greek pantheon. Roman political and academic communities had incorporated religious thought and practice into their architecture and their calendars. As Paul visited the Areopagus he looked around for some statue or building or shrine that would permit him to speak of Jesus. Hebrew thought was foreign to this crowd. To talk about Abraham and an altar or Aaron and the temple was to speak of a language and a community tradition outside their experience. Paul was seeking to be relevant. How can Christians stay relevant in today’s culture? What are we doing that says, “God is at the very center of our lives?”
“Tom Long tells of reading the memoirs of an Irish rabbi, who, during World War II, was as a little boy thrown into one of the death camps with his family. He said he was amazed in the death camp that no matter what was going on, his father would insist that they observe the Sabbath every week. They would gather quietly and secretly as a family. His father would find a candle from somewhere and place the little stub of the candle on a table, he would light it and they would say the great Sabbath prayers of hope for God to rebuild creation. One Sabbath when they gathered, however, his father did not have a candle. So he took their ration of butter, all the butter they had for the week, put it on the table, put a piece of string in it and lit it. The little boy was infuriated.
“Papa, that’s all the butter we have; you’re burning it up.”
His father said, “Son we can live for many days without food, but we cannot live one hour without hope. Let us say Sabbath prayers.”
Disciples of Jesus live in such a way that we have hope that God is able to take our meager efforts at faithfulness and somehow weave those efforts into God’s purposes for the world.” P.R. (June 29, 2014)
Presbyterians are people of the books – all 66 books of the Bible, the Book of Order, and the Book of Confessions. We make a decided effort to get the language right and say clearly what we believe. For example, The Confessions of 1967 in addressing the issue of Mission in 9.32 and 9.33 reads:
“The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern of the church’s mission. His life as a man involves the church in the common life of men. His service to men commits the church to work for every form of human well-being. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all the sufferings of mankind so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of men in every kind of need. His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on man’s inhumanity to man and the awful consequences of its own complicity in injustice. In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of man’s life in society and God’s victory over all wrong.
The church follows this pattern in the form of its life and in the method of its action. So to live and to serve is to confess Christ as Lord.”
Sometimes God takes even our dubious intentions and makes something of it. It is like a seminary student in his zeal to impress his first congregation with his knowledge of scripture quoted Psalm 50:9 “I will accept no bull out of this house…” He correctly quoted the King James accept that he had tried to be relevant by substituting “bull” for “bullock” and “this” for “thy” and in the process created a humorous line for his teenagers to quote often and loudly to their parents and grandparents who didn’t think scriptural knowledge ought to be funny at all.
The point of the Psalmist is that creation is all about what God has done and the errant thinking that asserts that what is done at the altar is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is granted us by Jesus Christ on the altar of the cross. It’s all about what God did in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we wonder if all our hard work at teaching in Sunday, School, Vacation Bible School and Youth programs is worth it. Once in a while we see that in spite of all our failings to reach out to society we get some things right.
“L. Gregory Jones, dean of the Divinity School at Duke University, related this telling anecdote about his son, Nathan. It seems that Nathan went off to a summer academic program for which his high school had nominated him. He called home to say, “You won’t believe what they put on the official T-shirt we bought. I won’t even wear it.” On the front it said, “Accept nothing.” On the back, “Question everything.” Such slogans may sound edgy, but in a very real sense they are the conventional wisdom of our culture. Trust no one, accept nothing, question everything – everything, that is, but yourself. Declining to wear this T-shirt, Nathan put on another. The front of this black T-shirt read in white lettering, “Loser.” On the back, was a quote from Jesus: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Wearing such a shirt, he affirmed his life was not his own. He affirmed that, when the world received him, it was receiving the one who sent him.” P.R. (June 29, 2014)
We live in a time when there is great bitterness over religious thought and religious positions. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants still simmer in Ireland. Muslims and Jews still shed blood in Palestine. Hindus and Muslims nurse ancient hatreds in the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. Buddhist and Shinto followers clash in Japan. Many North American churches have split and divided communities, too! Years ago, I had my first introduction to just how angry people can become in church. A congregation where I had been attending while in college was bitterly divided. The church was ready to leave the denomination. One of the denominational leaders was present to moderate a called congregational meeting. One of the elected officers rose to speak and gave an extended harangue, prefaced by the comment, “My Bible says,..” Without rancor the moderator said, “We share the same Bible and mine says, “Love one another…”
Ritva H. Williams from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, writing on this passage notes: (Minister’s Annual Manual 2004-2005, pps.35-351)
“Paul begins by acknowledging that the Athenians are an extremely religious people whose devout piety has led them even to erect an altar to an unknown god. This god’s identity Paul now reveals to them. The unknown god whom they worship is none other than the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator of the world and everything in it. This revelation is followed by a gentle jab at idolatry: this God does not dwell in a shrine built by human labor or live off the sacrificial offerings of humans. In fact this God gives life and breath and all things to mortals, including a hunger and yearning for God.
These are truths that the Athenians themselves have already perceived as Paul demonstrates by quoting the Greek philosopher Epimenides: “for in him we live and move and have our being.” A second quote from the Greek poet, Aratus, asserting that we too are God’s offspring, serves to clinch Paul’s point that idols make poor stand-ins for authentic deity. Paul concludes with a call for repentance. The chapter ends with the notice that although some scoffed at Paul, others indicated that they would like to hear more and some became believers.
Paul’s proclamation in Athens displays reverence and respect for the traditions of his Athenian audience. He does not assume that he has cornered the market on religion or spirituality or wisdom. Paul takes the time to explore and examine their religious practices, to know their philosophers and poets. He finds points of contact – common concepts and values that serve as places for introducing new perspectives. His critique is gentle and sympathetic. Paul knows when to stop; he knows that his audience needs time to process what he has said, to think it over. He knows that the real work of conversion is done by the Holy Spirit. In all of these ways, Paul’s address to the Athenians models for us what it means to speak up and speak out for Christ with gentleness and reverence. “
At issue is the question of how we communicate in a language and a culture that is not our own. As Paul lives among the Athenians he is out of his native element. He is not among Jews, but Greeks. They do not know the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets. So, to speak of Jesus as the fulfillment of the scriptures holds little meaning for his audience. Moreover, their primary language is Greek and not Hebrew, Aramaic, or even Latin. Paul was separated from his audience not only by culture, but also by language. Moreover, Paul was in Athens, in the heart of an academic community that was world renown. The Greek philosophic method was very different from the Hebrew concept of wisdom.
In this passage the apostle Paul is attempting to build bridges for discussion with his listeners. In the world in which we live today, as in the days of Paul, the thought and language of Christianity is in many ways foreign to the language and culture in which we live.
When the governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meet, I hope the focus on that which God is calling us to be and do. In other words, I pray that the focus will be in its entirety about God in all three persons of the Trinity.
So, we find ourselves, like Paul, in an age in which Christianity works among people speaking in other languages. Talking about our faith is awkward for many of us. We are not accustomed to saying what we think about God, Jesus, the Spirit, or the Bible. For the culture at large, Sunday has no sacred significance, it is another day to work, shop, or play. Our culture places great emphasis upon personal responsibility and personal freedom. Advances in technology and science have often left us with the impression that God, if He is present at all, is only in the background. We may find ourselves content to believe the premise of many scientists that the world conforms to rational laws and with time the whole picture will be unraveled. .
Paul engaged a foreign culture and spoke a language that was his second language. By comparison with other efforts in Acts, we might be tempted to think this one had only meager results. Luke writes:
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
What seems to be noteworthy is that one sentence spoken by some of those present:
“We will hear you again about this.”
Paul had opened up a basis for conversation with those unfamiliar with the language of Christianity. In today’s technologically and scientifically sophisticated world there is an even greater need and opportunity for Christianity to speak. More then ever we need conversations to take place between Christianity and culture.
L. Bernard Cohen in his book, The Birth of a New Physics, notes that in 1619, Johannes Kepler wrote a book, his fifth, Harmony of the World. In that work he studied planetary motion and developed the concept of planetary motion in elliptical orbits. In the Table of Contents is found, “8. That the four kinds of voice are expressed in the planets; soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass.” In other words, he was working under the assumption that there was a music of the spheres. I doubt that most of us ever knew that when we sing the hymn, “This Is My Father’s World” the phrase in verse one, “The music of the spheres…” has an extended history in mathematic and scientific thought.
In Glenn McCullough’s article, “Renewing the Technological Mind” in the April, 2014 issue of Theology Todayhe examines the question:
“What does modern technology have to do with God?”
He purposes that a major shift in the way we look at scientific discovery has taken place. He asserts that we have moved from a language of indebtedness to a language of effectiveness. He uses as an example the modern furnace. McCullough argues that we see technology principally in light of how it works. Turn on the unit, adjust the thermostat, and the issue becomes how quickly and how reliably does it control the building’s temperature. We do not often see more then the thermostat. The unit itself is hidden. The source of power is taken from some distant source –oil field, gas field, electric generator, or atomic reactor. Moreover, we rarely consider the implications of the unit’s final demise when it wears out. Therefore, we often see technology as principally a human invention and miss the point that creativity is at the heart of the Genesis story and that we are inventors because of God’s creative gift in us. If we engage modern science and technology on that level then we must ask the question:
“What is God doing in our lives?” Which naturally leads to the question, “What are we doing with what God has given us?”
“It is through this renewing of the technological mind that we come to understand what it means to create in the image of the creator.”
Praise be to God who gives us the language of Christianity to engage the language of our age and find faith and hope to live as God intended us to live. Thanks to new technology, we are able to speak, see, and meet remotely in spite of our physical separation made necessary by this Covid-19, global Pandemic. Let our worship and mission be all about God!