The Unknown God

Acts 17:16-31
Mark Edwards
May 21, 2017

Today is Confirmation Sunday and in just a short while we will celebrate with these 11 confirmands in their public profession of faith and their entrance into the full membership of this church. In many ways the Confirmation program, which has met over the course of this past year, is about confronting the big questions of the faith. I’ve asked lots of questions and while even I can’t answer them all, there is one answer that all these confirmands are prepared to give today. It is the most basic answer to the grandest and most important question.

I like questions. And this text from Acts raises many. There is so much in this episode that it would be easy to get pulled in all kinds of fun directions, by asking all kinds of important questions: questions of philosophy, politics, science, providence, idolatry, religion, culture. So many questions…

[The following section was not delivered on May 21 due to time restraints.]

There is the fact that Athens is full of all kinds of idols. One might easily explore these and the similarities they have with contemporary American culture and politics, much of which is derived from Greek influences. What might we find?

There is the Stoic and Epicurean philosophy and Paul’s engagement with the leading intellectuals of the day. Stoicism emphasizes that “everything happens for a reason” and  Epicureans insist that the happy life is attained by 1) simple material pleasures and 2) not thinking too deeply about stuff we can’t grasp. Both were dominant schools of thought. And yet, 2000 years later, it is Paul’s preaching of Christ resurrected that has effectively endured as a dominant coherent school of thought. How did that happen? Is it because Christianity is more rational? And what might happen if we slip back into Stoic assumptions about fate  and providence and Epicurean aspirations of pleasure? Could we end up like ancient Greece?

There is the fact that Athens is caught up with the perpetual quest for anything new and exciting. What happens to a culture that jettisons all tradition for the latest and greatest ideas? Did they get confused? Might we?

There is the fact that the Athenians are deeply “religious” and thus likely very “spiritual” and devout — but what it is they worship? They worship Gods of silver and stone? Who could ever fall in love with and worship art and manufacturing?

There is the fact that the Athenians seem to be groping around for ecstasy and divine encounters and yet can’t seem to get their hands on the thing they most crave. And yet, of those who “search” it says they also find God. How should we feel about for God? Will all our fumbling eventually lead us to ecstasy?

There is the fact that Paul claims God “who made the world and everything in it” has “allotted the times and the boundaries” of the universe. Is God the cause of the Big Bang, the weaver of the space-time fabric?

What does it mean that the omnipotent and omniscient God, the God who knows and sees all, “overlooks times of human ignorance”? If God is not focused on our sin, failures, and short-comings, what is God focused on?

What does it mean that “we live and move and have our being” in God? Are we, like fish in water, swimming in something so ubiquitous we can’t even recognize it? Could God really be that immediate and foundational to our moment-by-moment physical existence? How? Where? Why?

Why would the almighty and all-powerful God choose to have the world judged in righteousness by “a man”? Why wouldn’t God just do it? Who is the man? Johnny Cash once sang:

There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names.
An’ he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down.
When the man comes around.

Who is this man? Is Cash’s apocalyptic vision theologically prudent?

What is this “altar to an unknown God”? How can we know things we don’t know? How can we worship a known as unknown? And how can Paul know the the unknowable that others don’t know?

And what of those few converts at the end of the chapter, namely the one named Dionysius the Areopagite? What of the mystical works that surfaced in the 5th or 6th Century claiming to the definitive works of this man? Is unknowing all that we know of God the true way to know that which supersedes and transcends all words, ideas, and mental images of God? How about this for a Dr. Seuss-style theological mind-twister: “But now as we climb from the last things up to the most primary we deny all things, so that we may unhiddenly know that unknowing which itself is hidden from all those possessed of knowing amid all beings, so that we may see above being that darkness concealed from all the light among beings.”[1]

[The May 21 sermon resumes at this point.]

Many of these are great unknowns (or are they unknowables?) and we could go on, and indeed we probably should, but not here and not now. For to do so would be to overlook the greatest and most interesting question of the passage. For at the heart of this strange and world-colliding passage is the “unknown God.” Do you know who it is?

Consider that just last week Pastor Dave preached on the stoning of an early apostle Steven. Those who stoned Steven to death laid their coats (to get better aim and power) at “the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58); “…and Saul approved of their killing this” early Christian believer (Acts 8:1). Then, just one chapter later Saul had his own encounter with an “unknown God.” “Lord, who are you?” he asked on the road to Damascus. And now, just a week and eight chapters later, Saul, now known as Paul, is preaching to the philosophical elite in the epicenter of the western intellectual world, Athens. Who is the God that can pull off such conversions? Do you know?

Strangely, the Bible is full of people’s encounters with an unknown God:

Consider Jacob wrestling on the banks of the Jabbok river (Genesis 32). “Please tell me your name,” says Jacob. But the God that Jacob is wrestling with just replies, “Why do you want to know my name?”

Who is this strange God who wrestles with humans, and lets them win? Do you know?

Consider Moses talking with a voice emanating from within a burning bush (Exodus 3), “What did you say your name was again?”

Who is this God that has heard the cries of the people and who has seen their sufferings? Who is this powerful liberating God of the Israelites. Do you know?

Consider the mother of Samson (Judges 13), who encounters a divine being in the fields, a being who promises to answer her prayer for the gift of son. When her husband, Samson’s father, encounters this curiously labeled “man of God” he asks, “Are you the one?” The simple answer in reply is, “I am.”

Who is the enigmatic life-giving God who hears the desperate pleas for a new-born, who simply says, “I am.” Do you know?

Consider a paralytic whose friends chop a hole in the roof of a house, so they can lower him down before a teacher with a bizarre reputation. Who is this one who proclaims to have the authority to forgive sins, to heal paralytics, and who says, “Stand up, take your mat and go to your house” (Mark 2:11)?

And the paralytic got up?! Who has the ability to do such things? Do you know?

Consider a batch of disciples, who spend all their days and nights with their loyal leader. And they get stuck in a storm out on a lake and think they are going to die. And when they panic and begin cussing out their leader, he calms the storm. They are stupefied and they ask, “Who then is this? Even the wind and sea obey him” (Mark 4:41).

Who then is this?” they ask; and they live with him. They don’t even know who this one really is. Do we know?

Consider the little children, “And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). Did the little children know what was going on? Did they know whose lap they sat upon? In whose embrace they received an eternal blessing regarding entering the kingdom of heaven? Did anybody there have a clue?

Who can make promises and guarantees concerning entering the kingdom of heaven, as this one did? Do we know?

Consider an outcast, a thief and a murderer as they are being publicly executed in the most humiliating and painful way conceived of by the local department of justice. “Those who were crucified with him also taunted him” (Mark 15:32). Who is this one who dies an unjust death, in torture and in shame, all while enduring the mocking insults of those he is with, of those for whom he is with?

Who would do such a thing? They had no idea. Do we?

And finally, consider an early Sunday morning, the friends of the deceased who are racked by grief and depression. Mary comes in, and she “told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (Mark 16:11).

I mean, come on, it just wouldn’t be rational? Who is capable of being undead? Who wields power over death itself? Do you know?

From the hills of Midian, from the ford at the river Jabbok, from the fields of Manoah and his wife, from a house that needs re-roofing, from the calmed Sea of Galilee, from the marketplace swarming with vagabond kids, from the bloody site of public executions, to the dark closets of despair and emptiness, we have Paul proclaiming an unknown God in the midst of Athens. These people are smart. These people are educated. These people have heard it all. Most laugh. But not all.

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.

Some… just a few… certainly no more than a dozen… well, let’s just say 11 decided to cross that boundary. They decided to know the God that others did not. They decided that they did know the God that others thought was unknowable. Who were these 11? Will we ever know?

Caroline, in your confirmation Statement of Faith you wrote: “I believe that God has a plan for us all that we may not understand at the time that events occur or even that we may never be able to understand it, but I believe that God has a purpose for me and everyone around me. I accept God’s plan of salvation.”

Who stands at the center of God’s plan of salvation? Caroline knows.

Lindsey, you wrote: “Having faith is like falling off a cliff backwards with your eyes closed. You can never completely know that what you believe in is true. Even the strongest Christians have some doubt. All parts of our lives belong to God, and he created everything for us. When I am unsure of things, I have to believe that God will catch me and knows what is best for me.”

Who is the One in whom Christians put their trust? Who catches us? Lindsey knows.

Anna, you wrote: “I know that the love and forgiveness of Christ are not something I can ever achieve… With this I am grateful to be accepted into a life with the love of Christ.”

Who is the forgiving messiah who welcomes us in love? Who is the accepting Christ? Anna knows.

Josie, you wrote: “I believe that he will one day come again, but until then he is working with us and through us in spirit… The Holy Spirit has worked through me during ASP last summer, where I helped to repair damaged houses in Kentucky.”

Who is the giver of the Holy Spirit? Who is the God that is with us in Princeton and in Kentucky? Josie knows.

Cal, you wrote: “I believe in the Church, a house of knowledge, [a] closely knitted community that teaches us, preaches to us, enlightens us, provides bagels and lemonade for us, and connects with us.”

Who is the bread of life? The Bagel of Life? Who is Lord of the church? Cal knows.

Matt, you wrote: “I believe that God gave up his only son so that whoever believed in him could live eternally in heaven. God’s forgiving nature and generosity is represented through his son.”

Who is this God? Who is this son? Matt knows.

Luke, you wrote: “In the beginning, only his light pierced the veil of nothingness.”

Who is the light of the World? Luke knows.

Margaret, you wrote: “I believe that every part of the triune God is always present in the world. I believe we must be open to this idea that He might not be as direct as we would like but God does know what is best for us. ”

Who is the indirect God who guides us and walks among us in subtle, cloaked, and sometimes anonymous ways? Margaret knows.

Camille, you wrote: “As the 32 of us were standing in St. Peter’s Basilica in Italy singing our hearts out, we couldn’t help but feel the emotions and feelings of togetherness spreading like wildfire from one person to the next.”

Who is the God who sets hearts afire, who puts promises in stone and invites us into the house of God forever? Camille knows.

Morgan, you wrote: “This year in confirmation I learned many things. One of which was at Lake Champion. I learned God’s love is never-ending no matter what mistakes I make.”

Yes, Morgan, this is something we all need to learn. Who is the one who, as you say, “healed the sick, blinded the brokenhearted, forgave sinners, and died on the cross”? Morgan knows.

Isabel, you wrote: “I believe God has a path for us and we should not worry too much about tomorrow for God is in control.”

Who is the one who tells us not to worry about tomorrow and what we shall eat and we shall drink? Who tells us that our heavenly Father knows we need such things and that they will be provided? Isabel knows.

Friends, we have before us 11 who know who the “unknown God” really is. Today they confirm that they are putting their trust, their faith, and their hope in Jesus Christ. May we, like them, follow Christ into, and through, all the unknowns of our lives. Amen.

[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. by Colm Luibheid. (NY: Paulist Press, 1987), p.138 (1025B).

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