God is there, when we need him!
Read Acts 17:16-28
It’s an interesting passage, this, if for no other reason that what we have is the usually busy Paul with a bit of time on his hands, waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive so they could go on to Macedonia where he felt a particular call. A few days to potter around one of the iconic cities in the ancient world, Athens. It would have been somewhere he’d heard lots about through his schooling and theological training. Everybody knew about Athens, it was famous for its literature and philosophical past, courtesy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Even though by Paul’s time it was marketing itself on its past glories, this was a bucket list place to be for someone of Paul’s intellect.
So, Paul on a short holiday break! What to do? Where to go?
He could have done the tourist trail, visited all the historic monuments such as the acropolis or the Pantheon which are still there to be marvelled at today. Or he could have wandered through the city centre, the ‘agora’ which was the heart of the athletic, artistic and spiritual life of the place, with its many porticos painted by famous artists, and sat and relaxed listening to a debate or two – they had a love of learning and debating in Athens, as of course did Paul!
But his first reaction was not a good one. It wasn’t the beauty of the place that struck him, just its idolatry. The city was heaving with idols. One writer said that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens!
Paul is not only saddened; he is distressed to see the state of the city. So, rather than do the tourist trail, he goes into the synagogue and the market hall, wherever people are gathering, and engages them in conversations about their lives and his faith. And it says something about the communication skills of Paul that he could relate both to the ordinary shoppers passing through and the intellectuals who spent their days debating philosophical themes. What a gift to have!
Let’s put that situation into our culture. Paul was happy to bring his faith into church, but was also comfortable in the park, the street corner, shopping centre, market hall, neighbourhood bar, pub or café, wherever people mingled.
And that’s a challenge to us, isn’t it? Because we’re probably a lot more comfortable being open about our faith in this place than out there in the town, where the people who don’t come here spend their time!
Paul engages in conversations with the intellectuals; Epicureans who believed that the gods were so remote that they weren’t at all interested in human affairs, and Stoics, who believed that everything was God, a fiery spirit, from which a spark lived in human beings until they died, and then returned to God. They believed that every now and then the world disintegrated into chaos, and then started all over again in an endless cycle.
Interesting conversations I’m guessing! But more importantly they took him to the seat of learning at Mars’ Hill where he could properly talk about his faith in front of the top thinkers in the city.
And what Paul does is home in on the interest that this city’s people seem to have in religion, or is it superstition? So many gods, and in case they missed any there is a shrine to the ‘unknown god’.
They think Paul is trying to persuade the people to follow foreign gods, but Paul is keen to cut through all of that. Gather up your little gods (little ‘g’), park them to one side and consider this, he says. And he goes on to talk of God the creator of the heavens and the earth, and everything on the earth. You can’t make this God out of stone or wood or anything else, he says, because he is the one who creates, who gives life and breath to all people!
Not only that, the God who creates, whose Spirit hovered over the waters during the act of creation, is also present in and around our lives. The God who gives us breath is also near enough for us to reach out and touch, because God wants us to seek him, to do that, reach out, sense that closeness and find him.
Just like that gentle breeze that we almost don’t realise is there around us, God is there, when we need him.