St. Paul once addressed a group of people in a marketplace in Athens who seemed very certain about their relationship with God, but were in reality very confused. These people were religious, but not spiritual. They didn’t know what to do about knowing the one true God and so they covered their bases by worshiping many gods. In fact, they even set up a monument to “The Unknown God.”
For what was to become a strategic event for the spread of the gospel among the gentiles, it is interesting to note that Paul was in Athens in the Areopagus more by accident than by his own missionary plan. Luke tells us the account in Acts (17:10-34) that Paul had recently been driven from Berea to Athens because of persecution and was waiting for Timothy and Silas to catch up with him. Notice that’s how the Church grew in the early days: by persecution. Paul simply preached the Word wherever he went—and usually starting where there were believers gathered together as a local congregation. When he was in Athens, he went to the synagogues to talk about Jesus and he went to the marketplace or Areopagus, a 370-foot-high hill in Athens, Greece. The hill was the ancient meeting place of a court where murder and other capital crimes were tried. By Paul’s time, the Areopagus was a place to discuss philosophy and religion, and it was something the Athenians loved to do.
Some in the crowd were interested in what Paul had to say, so he addressed them by first complimenting them, “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. However, it doesn’t seem like you’ve found the answer to all your questions about God because I see you’ve got this altar here with the words ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ on it.” Of course, that was a way to cover all the bases. It only goes to show that unless God reveals himself to you, you will never find him no matter how religious or spiritual you are.
The common catch phrase today is “I’m spiritual, not religious.” People care about the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But we don’t want to get bogged down in the details of knowing and believing what God has said in his Word. Our society appears to be very spiritual, yet stumbles around for the truth. That doesn’t mean people are against looking religious. We have all the trappings of being very religious: “In God we trust” is on our coins. “Under God” is in the pledge of allegiance. We pray before civic and sporting events. But often the name of Jesus and the specific truths of his Word are absent. Many prayers and lives are offered to the idol “Unknown God.” Jesus once said: “The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him nor knows him” (John 14:17).
It is a good thing God is patient with us. He patiently waits for us to repent and to listen in his Word to what he has done and promises. Paul told the Athenians that Jesus rose from the dead and is therefore the “Known God.” His resurrection is proof that sin has been atoned for and that through faith the last enemy death shall not have power over us. Because Jesus lives, you and I also shall live by faith.
I suppose the Athenians setting up an altar to an “unknown god” reflects a desire to be known by god. It is easy to think of ourselves as being “unknowns” – as having no value, cogs in a machine, numbers in a computer, faceless, nameless, unnoticed by the universe. No wonder we feel hopeless. What in the world could be more demotivating and discouraging than to think that nobody cares about you? Paul reminds us that Somebody in this universe not only notices us, but loves us and cares about us. We’re not merely a nameless, faceless blob of protoplasm taking up space in the universe. The God of the universe sees us and loves us. And just so he wants to be known, and wants us to know that we are known.
God does not make himself known through your emotions or reason. Some churches try to know God that way. That’s why drum kits and casual clergy have replaced altars and pulpits. The good news is “The Unknown God” is known through what is tangible, right here and now. God made himself known through Jesus who is God in the flesh. God makes himself known today through Jesus who comes to us through his Word and Sacraments. He’s known by what you can hear, touch, and taste: Word, water, wine, and wheat. Through the preached Word and the earthly elements of Baptism and Holy Communion God makes himself known and comes to us with his forgiveness, life and salvation. Through these means of grace we receive God himself and his gifts of grace. Let the devil have the things of this world, the idols of man’s making. In Christ through Word and Sacrament we live forever.
Today is festival of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. Jesus has left us visibly, but he has not left us alone. He sends us his Holy Spirit when he gives us himself through his Word and Sacrament. And so he makes himself known that we might know him. Knowing him, we have real and lasting hope.
+ Pr. Jim Schulz