Posts

“Facing Truth – the First Step”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11
2 Peter 3:8-9
Mark 1:1-8

 

Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 …See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

 

2 Peter 3:8-9

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

These infamous words of scripture, “Comfort, comfort, Oh my people”…they cause my heart to sing, strait away.  I am transported into Handel’s Messiah, just like that.

And famous they should be, because they are gospel!  They are good news!

But what we oft’ fail to notice is the Lord’s discipline, which precedes this voice of glad tidings.  The message of comfort is precisely so entirely comforting BECAUSE it comes on the heals of suffering.  It comes on the heals of sleeping in the beds we’ve made for ourselves.  It comes after we are eating our words, after we have our foots in our mouths, after we are ashamed and exposed.

God’s light reveals truth.  And truth shows both our beauty and our haggardly appearance.  We have both.  And by the rules of this world alone, we are stuck, beholden to our own sins, trapped in the cycles of sin and death, willing to do good but seemingly powerless to do it!

And THIS is the place into which the good news comes. 

 

Amid injustice, amid pain and suffering, amid disconnect, amid dissension,…
Amid othering, amid coldness and cruelty, amid oppression and rampant fear…
Jesus comes,
a little baby.
And the earth breaths a sigh, the heaven’s burst forth, and both near and far God’s inbreaking is on display.

 

In 2 Peter, we are reminded that time is but a moment to God.  What we may perceive as God’s slowness to act, is in fact God’s desire that ALL might be saved.  God is patient – more than any of us can comprehend – for God wills that all might come to repentance and enter into that fullness of life!

And so God WAITs until the fullness of time – until the right time.
AND – to aid those still needing a change of heart, still needing a nudge, still needing to grow in humility, God sends John the Baptist.

 

John the Baptist lives in ways most unconventional.  Some only come to see him in order to gawk.  But he is doing the unsettling work.  He is helping folks connect with their yearning, their need, THE REALITIES OF WHO THEY TRULY ARE, fluorescent lights ON.

No wonder some didn’t like him.
No wonder his life would be cut short by a powerful couple who did not like the truth he’d publicly spoken about them…

He spoke truth to power – bringing the things we hide in the dark, out into the light.

 

For it is in the light, that we may find healing…
IF we do not retreat into darkness: defending ourselves, denying the truth, spinning the facts, controlling the news, cutting off the heads of those who speak what we’re intent on hiding.

Because if we think we have no sin,
the truth is not in us.

And where there is no truth there is no life.

 

Christ has come that we might have life,
and have it to THE FULL. 

The full

 

God is not content with facades.
God is not pleased by our outward shows of holiness.
God is not impressed by our score-keeping:  one-upping one another, judging ourselves by one another (and one another by ourselves). We might as well be arguing over various shades of gray; it’s ALL gray.
We have ALL sinned.
We are ALIKE sinners before a Holy God.

And until we come to that realization, we cannot begin to perceive our need for Christ.
And so God sent John the Baptist. 

 

Now, there are those in your life, and in mine,
who tweak your nerves.
There are those in your life, and in mine,
around whom you behave your worst.
There are those who point out your faults,
whether openly or covertly,
And despite our deep desires to be done with these individuals,

God has promised us blessing THROUGH all things.  God can use these moments, these folks, these circumstances as our teachers, our friends.  Around them, we learn more about ourselves.  Our growing edges are made plain, our sensitivities exposed, our triggers on display.

 

And in this way, we oft’ serve as John the Baptists for one another. 

 

Every moment, every person, every circumstance presents us with a chance:  to lean into reality or to retreat, to accept the world on its own terms or to deny it, to accept one another as they are or to try to control them.  When we allow our God-given feelings – especially those angry, uglier ones – to teach us, we too step into the light.  We too allow ourselves to be exposed, as in fluorescent light.

And we have the opportunity to engage the truths about ourselves, others, and the world; or to hide from them. 

 

But if we trust that God is using all things for good in our lives,
then we begin to look for the lessons, the truths.

If we believe that God has given us our feelings and that they are inherently good,
we can make peace in ourselves and allow them to teach us.

And if we believe that Christ is coming still today,
that God is present and alive today,
then we are ever on watch, ever seeking, ever waiting.

 

 

Who may God have sent into your life to be a John the Baptist?

You may be drawn to them, as were the multitudes who traveled out to the wilderness from the city to be baptized by him.
You may be repulsed by them, and come all that way from the city just to gawk and make fun.
You may feel threatened by them because they expose truth.

 

But God has sent them.
God has allowed them.

And in these circumstances you might rather avoid, God is providing you the chance to prepare the way of the Lord, by listening for God’s voice of truth and turning from sin. 

 

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our hearts?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our minds?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our openness, in our listening for God – even in the faces of those who irritate us?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord? 

 

There was a good reason God sent John the Baptist ahead:  we don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, we don’t like to sit with our failures, we don’t like to get real with ourselves or others about our shortcomings, we DO NOT LIKE to change under fluorescent lights.

But when we listen to the voices of John the Baptists,
when we look ourselves over in honesty and truth, in the mirrors of our changing rooms,
we are made ready: 
ready for God-with-us! 

 

So repent! Let us turn from our life-diminishing, truth-denying, sin-sabotaged ways, and prepare the way of Christ, the Lord. 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

PRAYER                (Psalm 85:8-9a)

Let me hear what You, Lord God, will speak,
for You will speak peace to your people,
to your faithful, to those who turn to You in their hearts.
Surely your salvation is at hand for those who fear you!

“Day of the Lord”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 11:23
Habakkuk 2:5
Luke 13:34
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

Luke 11:23

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Habakkuk 2:5

Wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own.

Luke 13:34

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

~~~~~~~~~

 

I am struck by a number of things in this passage.

To start, I am curious about the phrase “day of the Lord.”  Since we come to this phrase with our own apocalyptic images and lore, we do well to understand it to the best of our ability.

I turned to an online resource on Biblical Hermeneutics which pointed out that this Greek word for Lord – Kurios – is only one of three Greek titles for Lord, and that Kurios is the most commonly used of those.  It is a title of address indicating authority by virtue of ownership.

 

Now this makes the term today quite sticky.  Using that term in today’s word harkens back to our nation’s own dark days of enslaving other human beings.  This when so many claimed ownership over others.  And in fact, until very recently, husbands still claimed ownership over their wives and children, as property as well.

In fact the beautiful and terrible history of our world tells this story over and over again.  We have all come to be, through times when some sought to enslave and “own,” direct and control others.  And I am deeply thankful that much of the world now rejects this, at least in many of its forms.  We still have a great deal of work to do.

 

Through-out the New Testament, we are invited to claim Jesus as our “Lord.”  Just as Paul declares that he willingly becomes the “slave” of Christ, so we too are invited into this way of being that surrenders our rights, our privilege, our autonomy to God.

To accept “Jesus as Lord” is to invite Christ into the driver’s seat,
to give Christ the keys,
to acknowledge that God is in charge – not only of the world, but of me.

 

This “day of the Lord” is then quite simply that time when Christ’s reign is made clear and tangible.  It’s that time when God’s will is done, when God’s Kingdom comes, when justice rolls down like the mighty waters, when true peace founded on justice shall reign.

 

This day of the Lord sounds magnificent – but we are warned that it won’t be for all.  It won’t be magnificent for us if we are standing in the way.  It won’t be magnificent for us if we are clinging to our own agendas.  It won’t be magnificent for us if we are trying to move against the mighty waters of justice – straining against the current of the Holy Spirit.

THIS is part of why it matters so much that we take refuge in God – simply put – because on our own we DO fight against God.  On our own, we do fall short of God’s great goodness, God’s perfect justice, God’s Kingdom on earth.  We fall short.

It is but by Christ’s blood, by Christ’s covering, that we are made acceptable in God’s sight.
It is by our repentance and turning to Christ.
It is by our confession that we cannot do it on our own.

And when we choose to take refuge in God,
when we call on God’s name,
when we return to God, taking shelter under the wings of the Almighty,
we are covered in the great flood of justice.

 

We NEED justice.  We pray for justice.  We work for justice.
We NEED love.  We pray for love.  We live in love.

BUT on our own,
we fall short,
so when justice comes,
when love comes,
we too will be swept away,
unless we are taking refuge in our God. 

This is one snapshot of the importance of Jesus Christ – of our need for deliverance, healing, rescue.

 

But another part of this goes deeper, for we are not called to simply get by.
We are not called to simply ride out cultural evils until the day of the Lord comes.
We are not made and delivered, accepted and cherished in order to go back to living in the dark.

No.

We are children of the light. 

We ARE children of the Most High.  Christ is the Light, the light of the world.  And in Christ, we too are made to shine!

 

We have work to do.
We have been given the armor of faith, hope, and love.  They are our defense against evil.
We have work to do.
We are not to sleep away our lives, to dull our senses in drink, to numb ourselves with pill.  We are NOT destined for destruction but for salvation!  This is the GOOD NEWS!
And WE have work to do!

 

Perhaps this is why the firm warning from the start – the warning about those who are comfortable and feel secure.  Perhaps that is an indicator of our state of sleep.  After all, one cannot sleep unless one feels secure…
Could it be that until THAT DAY comes – wholly and completely – we cannot rest?
Could it be that until THAT DAY comes – wholly and completely – we must not lose sight of the goal?

Could it be that when we are awake, we will not feel comfortable and secure?
Could it be that when we are alert, we will not feel comfortable and secure?

Might it be that when God has opened our eyes to the true state of the world as it is, we will not feel at peace?
Might it be that when God opens our eyes, waking us from sleep, the veils of security and control are lifted, and we realize we are NOT in control?

Is this why, Paul utters this reassurance – this beautiful re-declaration of the gospel – that Jesus Christ “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”

Paul reminds us that whether or not we follow his teaching well, we are covered in Christ, Christ has already done it, we have been adopted into the family of God.  We are destined for life!

 

And so Christ has set us free from the patterns of sin and death.
Christ died for us – that we might live!
…even when we too have fallen asleep. 

The Good News of the Gospel! 

 

Can you believe it?!?

 

And so Paul’s instruction for us to live as children of the light, people of the day, is not out of fear of death and punishment.  It is not to be done out of guilt.  It is not in order to earn anything at all.
We do it, because that’s where life is.
We do it, because that’s where light is.
We do it, because life is better in the light and life of Christ, than anything we could muster on our own.

We live in the light,
we do the works of light,
we stay awake,
we remain alert,
in gratitude for the One who makes all things right,

the One in whom we live and move and have our very being,

the true Light.   

 

 

In the words of risen Christ, recorded by Julian of Norwich,

“I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well,…and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.”

She explains, “And in these…words, God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and in peace.”

 

Peace and rest, even amid discomfort and alertness,

Thanks be to God! 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 123

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
until he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

 

PRAYERS

Saint Augustine, North Africa (354-430)

Flood the path with light, we beseech Thee;

Turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;

Tune our hearts to brave music;

Give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;

And so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage

the souls of all who journey with us on the road to life,

to Thy honor and glory.

 

“The More, The Better”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:1-21
Numbers 11:24-30

 

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

 

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.


 

Just before this part in Moses’ story among the people of Israel journeying in the wilderness, the people have been complaining.  For though God has been supplying them with manna – simply forming on surfaces early in the morning – for which they had neither to plant nor reap, some among them are disgruntled as they recall how they ate in Egypt: the fish, leeks, garlic and chives,…and on an on and on.  They feel sick of manna and want a change.  They crave meat.

And this sends Moses into his own complaint to God.  He rants:

“Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

 

Moses doesn’t hold back all!  This must be some trust – to be able to just throw his own tantrum on the floor, as it were, before God Almighty.  But God responds with compassion toward Moses and a measure of anger at the behaviors of those disgruntled and ungrateful among the people.

God tells Moses his will to have others among the people to also help carry the burden of the people.  Moses is to select 70 of the elders and officers over the people.  They are to gather with the Moses in the tent of meeting, and God will speak with Moses there, putting some of God’s spirit on the elders.

 

And so this is what Moses does.  He calls and gathers the elders and officers in the tent of meeting.  And when God’s spirit rests on the elders, they begin to prophesy.  This is the only time they prophesy.

But most surprising, two of those selected (but who do not make it to the tent of meeting) …they also began to prophesy…but in the camp, among the people.  And so, a messenger is sent to tell Moses of the goings-on in the camp – how the two are prophesying.  And before Moses could respond, Joshua, Son of Nun, is indignant on Moses’ behalf saying, “Stop them lord Moses!”

But to their surprise, Moses replies,

“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

 

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” …

What a blessed desire.

 

Moses does not want to hoard or control the Spirit of God.  If he has any controlling tendencies in his bones, the sheer emotional and physical exhaustion at bearing the weight of responsibility for all the people is flat wearing him out!  He yearns for more to carry the burden with him.  He yearns for others to also hear God, for others to also prophesy, for others to also speak truth, discern solutions, resolve dissent, and lead this wandering people.

And so God’s response of putting the Spirit on the elders is in direct response to Moses’ human desire and limitation.  Moses needs help!!

So when this young man runs to alert Moses to the two elders in the camp, who are prophesying too, Moses is not threatened at all.  He is elated.  He only wishes ALL the people would be filled with the Spirit of God!

 

And how poetic, that this is exactly what God does, as Jesus returns to heaven.  God sends the Spirit out upon all God’s children – children not by blood, natural birth, personal righteousness, or position, but God’s children because the undeserved grace and mercy, love and redemption of Jesus Christ.  We have only to receive this unbounded gift, that we might enter into the joy and freedom and salvation of our God.

God pours out the Spirit on ALL God’s people. 

 

I am struck by this story.  For one, in all my years growing up in church and studying scripture, I’d never before noticed this passage.

  • I love how Moses rants at God.  I relate.
  • Complaining, venting, and ranting are quite often looked down upon in our Christian culture.
  • I am filled with gratitude that God does not shame Moses but helps him.
  • I appreciate seeing how another servant of God reaches his own limitations. I also relate. Moses give us an example of asking for help.
  • And in God’s response we see compassion and understanding. It gives me hope that we too can ask for help…even through our rants.

I love Moses’ response when Joshua wishes to restrain the Spirit, in order to preserve Moses’ status within the community.  Joshua is concerned that this prophesying might endanger Moses’ respected position.  But Moses is not at all concerned with this political move.  He does not play the game.  He does not grasp to control or restrain the Spirit.  He doesn’t discredit the two men who begin prophesying outside of his purview.  Rather, he is concerned that the people hear truth, receive guidance, and walk in God’s ways.  The more true guides, the better.  The more workers for the harvest, the better.  The more who are led by the Spirit of God, the better.

 

Do you know how many generations of Christians have sought to restrain the Spirit of God?  Though we might not call it that, that is exactly what we have done.  We’ve attempted to define and control who is in and who is out, just as the earliest Jewish Christians did when some required that all Gentile believers be circumcised, refrain from eating meat, and observe all the holiness rituals.  It is what Jonah did when he refused to follow the Spirit of God and sailed in the opposite direction, rather than go and preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.  It is what Peter was tempted to do, when he was called by a Gentile family to come and preach the gospel among them.  It is what the church has done, when it has placed ritual upon doctrine upon confession upon giving – as a requirement for salvation – diminishing the gospel, making it conditional, and in fact, not very good news at all!

Even if you and I, per say, have not participated in these particular efforts to quench and control the movement of the Spirit of God, our own Christian culture, our ancestors who came before, and generation after generation of believer has been tempted in this same way.  And I suspect that when we are truly quieted and listening, we too will discover ways in which we have participated in efforts to limit the expansive love of God, and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.  For God is moving through-out the world, to seek out and save the lost.

 

Are we?

Are we listening?
Are we following?
Are we obedient?

 

Are there actions we have taken,
prejudices we’ve carried on,
things we have left undone,
words we have said or left unsaid
– even unbeknownst to us –
for which we need to ask forgiveness?

 

Will we set down our temptations to control?
Will we surrender our ego
and take on humility?

 

Will we take our cues from the movements of God by the working of the Holy Spirit, rather than expecting God to follow our strategic plans and secret desires?

 

“Would that ALL God’s people be prophets and that the Lord would put the Spirit onto them!” Moses imagines.

 

Thanks be to God!

For God has anointed you and anointed me!
God has put the Spirit into child and grandparent,…
Men and women and those non-binary,…
The powerful and the powerless,…
God has poured out God’s Spirit upon ALL flesh!

 

What wonder!  What goodness!  What honor!  What opportunity!

May we take this long-desired, unparalleled gift – this pouring out of the Spirit of God – and may we be about the work of our God:

Grateful to share in this gospel work,
Shining our light into the darkness,
Proclaiming freedom to those oppressed,
Doing justice, and thereby ushering in the Kingdom of our God, and
Announcing the mercy and grace of our God.

Thanks be to God! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Connecting the Dots”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
Acts 17:22-34

 

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-34

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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 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, 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. 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, 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. 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.’

“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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


 

I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.

He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.

I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people.  After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God.  And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion.  They cannot protect us and do not care.  They are not worthy of our lives.

But I love Paul’s response:  when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.”  For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues.  He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.”  How marvelous!

 

First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood.  Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief.  It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.

Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty.  In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God.  He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful.  He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God.  And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding.  Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!

And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people:  he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message.  In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God.  They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand.  And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.

And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name…  And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.

 

Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made.  Paul wrote this.  And he was onto something.  Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place.  God is God, no matter the time or place.  And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do.  They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.

Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel.  There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story.  While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time.  And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes.  In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty. 

 

And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul.  Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture.  And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader.  Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.

Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all!  Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst.  But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective. 

 

Today in America, we live in post-Christendom.  There was a time when Christianity here was the norm.  That is no longer the case.  Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted.  And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion.  After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.

And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth.  We can be in the world while not being of the world.  We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.

In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results.  But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving.  And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”