THE UNKNOWN GOD
TEXT: ACTS 17:22-31
6 Easter, A
(22-23) So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
The ancient Greeks were by any accounting a very religious people. They literally worshiped thousands of different gods, and each one of them was petty, jealous, wicked or vengeful in their own way. The best ones simply didn't care about humanity at all. Greek myths are full of stories about gods taking advantage of, or causing trouble for, simple people who didn't deserve it. And so, the Greeks worshiped the gods not out of love or thankfulness, but only so that they would not anger them or get themselves in trouble. Indeed, they were so superstitious – so religious, in a sense – that they felt even with their thousands of identified gods, they had better also throw a bone to the one they might not know, the one they might have missed. Just in case. Thus the altar to the Unknown God.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 27 ... Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for In him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, For we are indeed his offspring. Can you imagine the looks on their faces? Paul begins describing this unknown god to them, but he uses concepts like love, care, compassion, concern. He tells them about a God whose primary characteristic is His hands on care for all the people of the world. Such a god who loved people and called them his own children would be unheard of to the Greeks. Truly an unknown god ... something they had never heard of before. But they are not alone.
In our day and age people no longer like to be called religious (it smacks of dead orthodoxy and stuffy doctrines they will say), but they are more than happy to be seen as spiritual. And much like the ancient Greeks, most people in our society today could name hundreds of different concepts for “God”. Indeed, most give at least some homage to several or more at a time. Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Gaia, our own inner sparks ... you name it. And just like the ancient Greeks so many of the people in our world today play the god game in order to hedge their bets. Who knows which is right, so better to give lip service to them all. Just in case.
But for all this wide-ranging religion (or spirituality – whatever you wish to call it) Paul's words in our text for this morning, would still be met with blank stares or slack-jawed incredulity. Talk about a god who loves us, a God whose primary characteristic is His hands on care for all the people of the world. A God who loves all people and calls us his own children ... well that really isn't any more common in today's world than it was in the world back then. Such a God is simply unknown to much of this world.
God is some sort of higher something that may, in some very ambiguous way, be kindly and gracious. Or then again, maybe not. After all, the argument goes, if there really was a God who loved us then why is there suffering and pain, and sickness, and war, and death? Why would He allow events like 9/11, or diseases like cancer to happen? When faced with the "wise" questioning of this world, even the most devout believers can begin to doubt whether there really is a loving God out there. Or at least, question if that God really loves ME.
That kind of thinking is everywhere you turn. Because people don't really know who He is, and what He has done, God has become only someone to question or blame or accuse when things go wrong. In effect saying that God is a very distant and uncaring god. He's not interested in the little day-to-day stuff of our lives so why bother. All He's interested in is the big stuff so you had better get that right. Many people even believe that God is some sort of potentially vengeful deity that must be appeased by good behaviour just in case!
But that's not the God that Paul proclaimed, or the God that we know, is it? (24-27) The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.
In fact a god who is a potentially vengeful deity to be appeased by good behaviour, is the farthest thing from the God of the Bible. As Paul tells us there really is a God out there who loves everyone, especially you and me! A God who came to serve us, not be served by us. He is the God who has given everyone life and being and is interested in every little part of your life, no matter how insignificant it may seem. And this God is no longer an unknown God either. His love, care, and identity have been made abundantly clear in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
In the person and work of Jesus all the doubts and fears and anxieties over the ''Unknown God'' happily disappear. God is not a distant, uncaring God. He is a very close and personal God. So close in fact, that He became one of us. He cared for us so much that He took on frail human flesh to face everything that we must, including pain and suffering and fear and doubt. He faced all the same things we do, only without giving in to sin. But He went one further. Having done all this He then took the burden of our sin and bore it upon a Roman cross. God allowed Himself to be humiliated for our guilt. He died to pay the punishment our sin demands. And He lovingly did it all for people who so very often don't even know who He really is.
(30-31) The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
This Good News of salvation freely given by our loving God is also a call to repentance – both for this confusingly spiritual world and also for us. We must all Know Christ. And knowing Him, we must make Him known to others. In these last days we can't afford to be complacent about the fate of the world around us. We dare not simply view them as our opponents or enemies in the truth. For God doesn't. Let us instead follow the example of St. Paul, and seize every opportunity God gives us to share the Good News of the Unknown God who is known in Christ Jesus.
For Jesus was raised again from the dead and shown to be the righteous sacrifice that now makes us children of God. Through Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus we are indeed God's offspring as Paul said. God's forgiven and sanctified children for all eternity. for just as surely as this Jesus was raised form the dead, so too will all those who believe in Him be raised to eternal life as well.
This is the God we know. This is the love He has shown us in revealing Himself in Jesus Christ. God is no longer an Unknown God. He is the God who is known by His loving kindness to us. A loving kindness shown to us in the One who lived and died and rose again, so that we too might live with him forever in heaven.