"MAKING THE UNKNOWN KNOWN”

APRIL 8th, 2018                                                                                             PASTOR DON PIEPER

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In Paul's Footprints                                                                                      ACTS 17:10-17; 18-34

 

                                                “MAKING THE UNKNOWN KNOWN

 

            We return now to Paul's second mission trip as he and Silas share the Gospel in places like Paul's hometown of Tarsus, in Derbe, where Paul's friend, Gaius, is from, to Iconium and Lystra, where Phillip joins them, to Antioch of Asia Minor, and from there to Troas, where Luke joins them, and from there to Philippi, where they plant the first church in Europe, when Lydia and her family are baptized.

 

            Last we heard, they had planted yet another church on Greek soil in the city of Thessalonica, where “some of the Jews who listened were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with many God-fearing Greek men and quite a few prominent women.”   (Acts 17:4)  Unfortunately, many of the local Jewish leaders were jealous of their success and stirred up trouble, prompting these new believers to send Paul and Silas to Berea, where they planted yet another church among the Jews and Gentiles. 

 

            Having left Luke in Philippi, and Silas and Timothy in Berea, Paul heads to his next destination: ancient Athens.   Ahh Athens...  What an amazing city!  While there, we walked where Paul walked, visiting the Roman agora, a pagan temple, the famous Parthenon and, on the way, the Areopagus, Mars Hill...       Paul was sent by boat so he arrived in the Port of Faliro, the port that launched Meneleus & his 500 war ships bound for Troy, starring Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger. Anyway, along the way “Paul was troubled by all the pagan idols he saw everywhere in the city.”   Hoping to connect with them he began “speaking daily in the Roman agora to all who happened to be there.”                                                                                                                                                     (Acts 17:16-17)   

            A center of philosophy and learning, Paul engages the Athenians in a discussion, a debate, not an antagonistic one, but as was the norm of the day, an exchange of ideas and varying perspectives.

 

            The Epicureans and Stoics were the dominant philosophers of the day.  The Epicureans believed that seeking happiness or pleasure was the primary goal of life.  The Stoics, on the other hand, placed thinking and reason above feeling and pleasure.  Paul's message about Jesus' resurrection prompted a mixed response. According to Plato, it made no sense for the soul to return to a discarded body. Such talk was babble! Some laughed, others wanted more info while still others came to believe. 

           

            Paul seeks to connect with the Greeks so he quotes their poets, notes their inclination to worship and dotes on how religious they are, quoting an inscription he read on an altar in town: “To An Un-known God.”  Such altars were erected so the Greeks & Romans could leave a sacrifice there, so they didn't anger a temperamental god inadvertently - to cover all their bases.  Paul then makes an incredible claim and offer.  He offers to make the unknown known and help the disconnected connect:  “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you!”   (Acts 17:23)

 

            We, too, are here to help the disconnect connect and make the unknown known.  So how do we do that?  Truth is paganism is very popular here too.  Others have experienced so much pain in their lives that their perspective has been compromised.   To be sure, it's not so easy!   It can be like trying to get someone to give up their comfy chair, their cozy hole, to go on an adventure...!

            [* film clip from ‘The Hobbit’; scene # 3, 13:35 – 15:40]                 (10:30 only)

                                                                       

Sadly many see the call to follow Christ as boring or as a bother, an uncomfortable inconven-ience and miss out on this wild adventure...!  So how do we change that? How do we connect...?  In his letters to the Christians in Corinth Paul laid out his approach to doing just that...:

                                                                        -2- 

 

“Though I am free..., I make myself a servant to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jew I talk as does a Jew.  To the Greek, I speak like a Greek; to the weak I become weak, to win the weak.  I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring some to Christ.” 

                                                                                                                        (1 Corinthians 9:22)

            Nowhere is his approach more evident than in Athens.  Here, Paul models four key steps to wit-nessing to those around us. First, listen and observe.  In order to speak like a Greek, Paul pays attention to what those around him are talking about, what's important to them.  He noted their idols, talked with people in the market place, had conversations with their teachers and thinkers, even read their poetry... 

 

            This step is far too often skipped by those of us eager to share our faith.  We're too quick to talk and too slow to listen, but everyone has a need to be heard....

Chuck:             I've come to you because lately I've.... been....trying to...

Lucy:               Wait a minute.  Before you begin, I must ask that you pay in advance.  Five cents please.    

Lucy:               (PLINK!) Boy!  What a sound!  How I love to hear that ol money plink!  The beautiful             sound of cold, hard cash!  That beautiful, beautiful sound!  Plink! Plink...!  What a beautiful             sound! So, you have a problem?  Well, you've come to the right place!  ...I need the money!

                                                                                                (The Parables of Peanuts, p. 309/180)

 

            Listening and asking good questions does two things.  One, it provides an opportunity to better understand what the other person's world view is. Two, it expresses our interest in that person, that we truly care about them.  As an Alpha guest once said, “This is the first time anyone really listened!”

 

            So first, Paul listened and observed.  Second, he affirmed and confirmed.  This is what he was doing when he made the statement, “People of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines.”  (Acts 17:22-23)

            Here he shows that he's interested in what they're interested in, what their beliefs are, what their priorities are, and then celebrates what is noteworthy and what he and they have in common... 

                                                                                   

            He affirms them, commending them for their belief that this isn’t all there is to life, that there's a greater power at work in the world.  Paul celebrates their inclination to worship which is what we all do when we marvel at a sunset,delight in a newborn baby, acknowledge our blessings as gifts from God.   Paul affirms them and then offers an observation:  “You have been worshipping him without knowing who he is.” (Acts 17:23)  That's his third approach: He draws their attention to God's existence and goodness.   He's making the unknown known: the very character of God.

 

            He begins by pointing to the wonders of the universe as evidence of God's goodness.  Then he quotes from Greek literature to confirm his genuine interest in what interests them, pointing out that we're all created on purpose for a purpose:“His plan in all of this was that all people should seek after God and feel their way toward him, and find him – though he's not far from any one of us.”                                                                                                                                                                   (Acts 17:27) 

            It's like the Dad who played hide n seek with his kids.  When it was his turn to hide he'd whistle funny tunes.  One of his kids asked, 'Why...daddy?'  Because I love it....when it when you find me!

                                                                                   

            Having established our common purpose Paul goes on to establish our common need: “God has set a day for judging the world”  Instinctively we know that. The brokenness of this world cries out for justice!  Come to think of it, we all have a lot to answer for...!   We've all acted selfishly, hurt others. We're all in a bit of a pickle and in need of a good, cosmic lawyer, or better yet, a sympathetic judge.

                                                                                    -3-

 

            And that’s the good news:“God has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he's appointed and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”              (Acts 17:31)   

 

            Clearly, it's in one’s best interest to get to know 'the man'.  And that's the point.  This is Paul's 4th step: he makes a connection to Jesus' resurrection the turning point of history, and our story! “Our goal then is to help others connect w/the man by building relationships, and by listening for the Spirit’s nudges as to when and where and how to share the greatest story of all!”  (Bill Hybels)

           

            Jesus is the same today as he was when Paul told the Greeks about him on Mars Hill. So it’s not the message that needs to change so much as it is our approach. When Paul spoke to his fellow Jews he was able to reason with them from the Scriptures but when Paul spoke to the people of Athens on Mars Hill, his approach was different.   He still spoke of Jesus and the resurrection but his starting point and approach varied.   It was not so much a sermon as it was a discussion: “Some said, ‘We want to hear more about this later.’  That ended Paul’s discussion with them, but some joined him and became believers.  Among them were Dionysius,…and a woman named Demaris…”  (Acts 17:32b-34)

 

            I know someone who had a conversation with a young woman who was heavily into witchcraft – a conversation that led to her checking out a local church web site.  Her curiosity aroused she began to attend services after getting off of work at the Wicca store in town. That initial conversation led to further discussions on good and evil, something that she was both interested in and troubled by.  As her friend came along side of her, listening as well as sharing, she came to see Jesus as her liberator as he set her free from the dark thoughts and inner lies that plagued her by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

           

            I love how Acts 17 ends with Luke identifying by name a couple of those first Greek believers, reflecting that this is about getting to know people whose names and stories matter!  As Paul indicates, God’s heart is that we all see ourselves as seekers.  So we don’t go out to convince people where they are wrong and we are right, to confront people as God’s arbitrators but rather as His collaborators!  We look for clues about where God is already at work, ready for his nudge to do our part!  

 

            So it was with Paul.  In the midst of a spiritually confused and prideful environment he found an altar to an unknown God and saw there a clue that God was on the case. He saw the means to connect.  It brings to mind a scene in which one furry-footed adventurer helps another make a connection...  

                        [film clip from “The Two Towers”; 2:44:55 – 2:46:50]

 

            Sam captures his friend’s heart with a message of hope, encouraging him to embrace his part in the ongoing story of the triumph of goodness over evil and life over death.  Sam understands that our daily lives are part of a larger story that has meaning & purpose and we can each be part of that larger story. Like him we are called to connect with those around us and help them connect their story with God’s story of ultimate victory over the darkness in our world and in our own soul. 

 

            First, listen to their story; second, affirm them; third, confirm God's existence and goodness; and fourth, make a connection to Jesus' resurrection.   As Paul put it...:

 

            “God did all this so that men would seek him...and find him, though he is not far from each one of us!  God has proved to everyone who his (anointed one...) is by raising him from the dead.”   So we seek after God our selves and encourage others, inviting them to join us on this great adventure, this cosmic love story as Christ leads us in this adventure of the Holy Spirit!   (Acts 17:27, 31)