Below the fold is a text version of Jenny’s sermon from Sunday, May 21, 2017, on Acts 17:22-31 and the danger of idolatry in our present age.
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.”
Imagine Paul wandering around Athens. A university town. A place of high culture. A place of great intellectual stimulation. But as he is wandering around, he is getting “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16). His frustration builds. The synagogue in town has apparently had no influence on the false religion being spread through town. He argues with everyone around, and they see him as a babbler, as someone talking about foreign gods. But they are interested in what he has to say, because they are always interested in the next new thing. So they invite him to tell them about his new teaching.
Now Paul had a gift for meeting people where they were. He is known for being all things to all people in order to get a hearing for the gospel. (In 1 Corinthians 9:22, we hear him say, “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”) Paul often looks for ways to connect where people are and what they believe to who God is and what God is doing in the world.
And that’s what he does here in our reading from Acts today. Paul has just been arguing with the people around town, but now, Paul is standing in front of the Areopagus in Athens, addressing the people. He is certainly still distressed about all of the idols he saw in town, but instead of condemning them right off the bat, he begins by reaching out to them and affirming them as religious people. He says,
22 … “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.”
The Athenians have lots of idols. They have been thorough in their polytheism. They have not left any God behind. They have covered all their bases by erecting an altar “To an unknown god,” realizing that there is more to creation than they can understand. Paul affirms where they are in their lives of faith and then tries to shift their thinking a bit. Paul sees all their objects of worship, affirms that they are religious people, but then goes on to tell them, “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.” God does not live in their objects of worship. Paul tells them that the god they worship as unknown is the God of all creation—the God who we search and perhaps grope for and who we ultimately find is not far from us (v. 27). Paul uses their idols as an entry point to engage the people and tell them about the one true God. Paul knows they are searching for something, and he tells them that what they are searching for, though they do not know it, is God.
Biblical scholar John S. McClure (Feasting on the Word), brings this into our modern day world when he invites us to see the idols of our world as coming out of the deepest desires of humanity and to look for how to talk about how God fulfills those desires in a way that no idol of this world could do.
So, today, I want to invite you to think about the idols of our world. An idol is something that we lift up in our world. It is something we think is great but which leaves us unfulfilled. As McClure says, often our idols come out of our deepest desires. We know from Exodus 20 (The Ten Commandments) that we are not supposed to have idols. We hear the words that say, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” So, we know we need to get rid of the idols in our lives. But first, we need to identify our idols. And second, we need to dig deeper to figure out what underlying desires these idols represent. As we do this, we can then move to an understanding of how God is at work to fulfill those desires in our lives.
Idolatry can take many forms in our lives. And it can be different for each one of us. John McClure talks about two forms of idolatry and the desires they indicate—the idolatry of consumerism and the idolatry of military power. He said “the idolatry of consumerism… could indicate a deep desire for future fulfillment: consumers are always pursuing the ‘next best thing.’” So a question for us becomes, “In what sense does God in Jesus Christ meet our deepest desires for human fulfillment and wholeness?”
As a way of contrast, he says that “an idolatry such as military power suggests … not fulfillment but security, achieved through the use of power and violence.” This may give us pause and cause us to ask how “God in Jesus Christ provides our true security in this world.”
Another deep desire we have is to be loved and accepted. This often gets played out in wanting to be a part of a particular group, the in crowd, a certain clique. This desire to be loved and accepted is so strong that we may often get into the wrong group or the wrong crowd, and then find it seems impossible to get out of the group once you are in it, or the group may turn on you and make you feel rejected and alone.
In Acts 17:28 we hear that, “In [God] we live and move and have our being.” Often we try to find our place or find meaning in things other than God. And while they may be good things, if they are not God, they are bound to fall short sooner or later. It is in God that we live and move and have our being. It is God who created all that is. It is God who created us. It is God who gives us worth.
What is it that we desire? Future fulfillment? Security? Love and acceptance? There is a contentment that comes in trusting that in God we live and move and have our being. However, this is not often easy. The voices around us become powerful influences if we let them. When we are grounded in God, it becomes easier to take a step back, to evaluate the situation in which we find ourselves, and to let go of the forces that are soul crushing.
As a church we are called to be grounded in God and to live in community. When we are grounded in God, it becomes easier to live in community, but we are human, and there are always other forces at work. There are always other desires that haunt us. Living in community is hard work.
This past week I listened to a podcast interviewing Betsy Singleton Snyder, a United Methodist pastor who became a mother of 4 including a set of triplets in her 40s. Her older son was 2 ½ years old when her triplet sons were born, and she talked about how after they were born she was painfully aware of the fact that sometimes you need help, and the reality that when someone else does something for you, they will do it differently than you would. Have you had that experience? Sometimes we find ourselves wanting to do it all ourselves because we know that if someone else does it, it will not be done the way we like it.
But, here is the kicker. We all need help sometimes. We all make mistakes. We all have things we struggle with. Thinking we always have to have it together is an idol we have created for ourselves. We need to let people know when things are not all right. We may worry about what people will think of us if we share what is going on in our lives, the struggles we have, the pain we endure. But we all have stuff we deal with. And we are not called to go through it all alone. We are called to live in community. To be there for each other. And as we live in community being grounded in God, our understanding of one another will deepen.
As we let go of the idols we chase, we can begin to see our deepest desires being fulfilled by God. Knowing that it is in God that we live and move and have our being begins to bring a sense of peace into the chaos of our lives. It doesn’t make the chaos go away, but instead, it helps to ground us in the midst of the chaos.
What are your deepest desires? How can those desires be fulfilled by God in a lasting way, instead of through the things of this world that will fade away? This week I invite you to breathe deeply and to think about what it means that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. May you experience being centered in God so that you may be able to face all that comes your way. Amen.