The wisdom of the story of Paul preaching in Athens is that the prevalence of idols in a culture is not an indication that God is no longer needed. It indicates the opposite—that the culture is desperately seeking what God offers—good news, the bold and provocative message that Jesus rose from the dead and so will we.

 

Acts 17:23

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. 

Where Faith Begins

 When Paul preached, things happened.

 Luke tells us that Paul’s habit was to enter the synagogue of a town and begin preaching Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Some people were convinced and others were incensed. Some responded to Paul’s preaching by becoming disciples of Jesus and others responded to Paul’s preaching by plotting to kill him.

But, he always got a response.

There is that one time, in chapter 20, when Paul started preaching a Sunday evening service in a city called Troas and kept on preaching past midnight and a young man name Eutychus, sitting in a third floor window, sank into a deep sleep and fell out the window to his death. Paul ran downstairs and raised the poor boy back to life, but still.

 I can’t help but think that Luke told that story as a cautionary tale to preachers—that even Paul could bore somebody to death by preaching too long. And, Luke tells us, Paul did not seem to learn from his experience. After reviving Eutychus around midnight, Paul dragged Eutychus back upstairs and continued to preach until sunrise.

I don’t think Luke told us that story to give us a model for Sunday night Youth group.

It was not Paul’s finest moment. But, he still got a response.

When Paul arrived in Athens for today’s passage, he had just escaped from one of those scrapes with the religious leaders in another town. He never intended to make an evangelical visit to Athens, it was just a stop along the way as he escaped from one town and waited for his partners Silas and Timothy to meet him there.

He went to the synagogue and either preached or argued the case for following Jesus—sometimes with Paul it’s hard to distinguish between his preaching and his arguing.

But, he didn’t limit himself to the synagogue. Luke tells us he also went to the marketplace and debated with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. 

The striking thing about Paul’s sermon in Athens is that he does not begin with scripture. Instead, he looks around at all the statues in Athens, and what he sees surely made his skin crawl. The prohibition against idolatry stands at the center of his theology as a Jewish follower of Jesus. And he is surrounded by graven images, by idols of all sorts to this god and that.

Surely, his gut tells him to launch a verbal attack on these superstitious pagans the same way he attacked a magician back in chapter 13 and called him “son of the devil, enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy.” 

But, that’s not what Paul does here.

Instead, he meets them where they are. Paul sets aside his emotional reaction to all the idols in Athens and starts reading the inscriptions at the base of each one. And, when he sees the inscription, agnostos theos, “to an unknown god,” he knows he has found his sermon text. Instead of channeling the Jewish prophets, Paul begins to channel Socrates. He uses the familiar words of Greek poets to describe the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

His sermon received a mixed reaction: some scoffed at the whole idea of resurrection. Some joined with him and became believers. Others said, “Let’s talk later at coffee hour.”

The impressive thing Paul did here is a kind of intellectual jujitsu. He took the emotional power of all the idols in Athens and put that power into the service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of railing against the evils of Hollywood, Paul would watch a movie, discern the spiritual need it addressed with the cultural idols of sex objects, technology, or superstition, and use it to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.

A colleague of mine did this recently in a piece he wrote on Caring Bridge. Karl Travis is a Presbyterian pastor, the younger brother of one of my best friends, and Karl recently entered hospice care. The doctors told Karl’s family to expect him to die within a few days. That was more than three weeks ago. A couple of days ago, he wrote one of the most extraordinary things I have ever read on Caring Bridge. Listen to the way he writes to both his secular and Christian friends, pulling in cultural objects and transforming them into signs of grace.

Karl’s titled his post from a quotation in Rachel Wetzsteon’s poem, “Sakura Park,”  “Meanwhile’s Far from Nothing.”

Click here to read Karl Travis's Caring Bridge post.

I have read and re-read Karl’s reflection on his unexpected reprieve. I continue to find layers and layers of meaning in this letter from the precipice. As I read it next to this story from Acts, I am struck by the idea that idolatry is not inherent in objects themselves, but in the human heart.

Our job as disciples of Jesus Christ is not to destroy the idols of our age, but to strip them of their power over us.

All the idols of our age can be put to work for good in the world if we, like Paul, can discern the deep human need that they address.

There is much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the waning influence of the church in our idolatrous culture. I have read in some intellectual essays that the church is destined to wither and die because humankind no longer needs God.

The wisdom of the story of Paul preaching in Athens is that the prevalence of idols in a culture is not an indication that God is no longer needed. It indicates the opposite—that the culture is desperately seeking what God offers—good news, the bold and provocative message that Jesus rose from the dead and so will we.

Idolatry itself is a dead end.  But, when we reach that dead end, our idols can serve as indicators of our greatest fears and anxieties. When idols fail us, we find that God has been waiting for us all along. That is where a deeper level of faith begins.