"The challenge is to be different from the world, and that is a challenge that is a relentless call throughout the Bible."
The book of Acts is really a continuation of Luke's Gospel. In the first few verses he says
"Theophilus, I first wrote to you about all that Jesus did and taught from the very first until he was taken up to heaven. But before he was taken up, he gave orders to the apostles he had chosen with the help of the Holy Spirit."
Luke then goes on to tell the story of the struggles and triumphs of the early developing Church and of those commissioned by Jesus to spread the Good News.
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you and give you power. Then you will tell everyone about me in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and everywhere in the world"
Luke gives us a whirlwind tour of 30 years of Church history in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Syria, Cyprus, and cities in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Rome. On our travels we find preaching and miracles, jailbreaks and shipwrecks and our many travelling companions include Peter and Paul, who is the subject of our reading from chapter 17.
"People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, "To an Unknown God.'"
In fact there were quite a few altars to unknown gods in Athens at the time of Paul's visit, and there's an interesting story surrounding this. Around 600 years before Paul walked down that road there had been a terrible plague in Athens which threatened the whole city.
A Cretan poet, Epimenides came forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose in the city and wherever a sheep lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god. If it lay down near a shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to "The Unknown God''
So Paul has wandered past these shrines, maybe stopped and taken note of which god or no god they were dedicated to and then as all good preachers are supposed to do, he took that as his illustration and formed around it this tremendous sermon.
And before he hits home with the nub of his message Paul disarms his audience with a what must have seemed a complement
"People of Athens, I see that you are very religious"
What would you have thought if Paul had said that about you? Do you consider yourself a "religious" person? Would you consider that a complement if someone used the phrase of you?
William Barclay in his translation of the first verse of our reading probably gets nearer to what Paul was trying to infer in these words. He has it saying "Men of Athens, I see that in all things you are as superstitious as possible."
Suddenly we're not quite as comfortable with that as a description. Many would consider themselves "religious" but far fewer would admit to being "in all things superstitious" despite the fact that daily you can see people avoiding walking under ladders, complaining that it's Friday 13th or searching desperately for a piece of wood to touch. Just a thought!
So, says Paul, you've got a city full of altars and one dedicated "to an unknown God". Unknown would infer that you know nothing about him. Well, I think the time has come to introduce you to this "unknown God". The first thing you need to know, and this is probably going to come as a bit of a shock, is that you're never going to get to know him by building shrines, altars and temples. Or by making models and effigies out of gold or silver - beautiful though these might be.
That's a complete waste of time.
You just can't confine or restrict God to anything made by human hands, says Paul. God is the maker not the made, and you can't find him or worship the one who created all things through objects made by human hands. This is the God who created the universe, gave life and breath to the whole of his creation.
God cannot be contained or neatly packaged into something that we create. And what do we create as our God?
Talk to some people outside the walls of our Churches and Chapels and ask them about their spiritual needs. Many will say they have none, that their lives are fully self-sufficient. I remember talking to one man as part of an evangelism campaign in our parish. He pointed around him to the lovely house he owned, the family he was proud of, the job he loved, and then explained how through his own efforts he had created the comfortable life that he now enjoyed. He had become the person he wanted to be and had no need of God. Indeed, there was no room in his life for God.
He had made a god out of job, his house, his family and his continual striving to achieve happiness. These were the objects of his worship.
Does that sound a bit hypercritical of someone who had done the very best for himself and his family, someone who had devoted himself to that end? After all, it was his words that he had no need of God in his life, because he had achieved all this through his own efforts.
I returned to the Church some years later to find him very much a part of the worshipping congregation. The truth of Paul's words had sunk in.
Life is far simpler and more beautiful than all that, says Paul.
"God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn't far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are"
All around us we see people striving to find peace and happiness, just like that man I talked to many years ago. They scratch the foil off their lottery cards, pick the same numbers every week in case by missing one they should lose a million. They look for the next pay rise, the next promotion that will bring them that one step nearer to where they want to be. They look for a bigger house, more prestige, more possessions because they feel that life is all about achieving these things. That somehow with all this comes happiness and fulfilment.
This happiness, this wholeness of life in which people can actually find peace and contentment in being the person they are, rather than the Hollywood image of the person they think they ought to be, is not achieved through all this striving, says Paul.
"God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him."
What a wonderful truth, and such a simple one to grasp. That all that people are searching for - that inner peace and wholeness, the wanting to feel accepted and important for who they are, the search for spiritual fulfillment - can be found by reaching out for God AND finding him
"He isn't far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are"
Of course, with this knowledge comes responsibility says Paul. In the past
"God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now he says that everyone everywhere must turn to him"
There are no real excuses anymore, he tells the people of Athens. In the past you were ignorant and God forgave your ignorance out of the depths of his love for his children. But things have changed now that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
"He has set a day when he will judge the world's people with fairness. And he has chosen the man Jesus to do the judging for him. God has given proof of this to all of us by raising Jesus from death"
God's love for the world has been revealed in the most visible means possible through the life, death and resurrection of his Son. There can no longer be any excuse for directing worship to anything made by the hands of a man.
A way has been made open through which all might find the wholeness they desire, and the acceptance to be who they are - special and unique in the eyes of their creator.
That way is Jesus, says Paul and it is through Jesus that our lives will be judged.
And this is a real challenge for us as Christians. We might well have made that move to reach out and find God, but we are still subject to the same temptations as the rest of mankind. There are still the same insistent voices coming at us from our newspapers and television screens trying to convince us of a "better way", a way that we might find happiness through possessions or by trying to become someone other than who we really are.
The challenge is to be different from the world, and that is a challenge that is a relentless call throughout the Bible. We are called to live lives that are different and by doing so show the world just what makes that difference in our lives. And what makes that difference?
The Grace and Love of God who reaches out to us; who wants to be known and loved by us as he already loves us; who has shown us forgiveness though His Son Jesus who died and rose again for us; who has shown us that we are free to be ourselves and to be loved for who we are, not who we would like to become.
"Just as I am without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me.
And that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come."