I used to see them on occasion back when I was downtown working. Street-corner preachers. Have you ever encountered one? Sometimes they are standing on a box, often holding up a big Bible, and preaching their hearts out to anyone who will listen. Which to be honest with you, is usually: no one. What I remember, whether the encounter was on a street corner on a warm summer day – or during the winter, up above in one of the city skyways, was how spectacularly ignored those preachers were by the people hurrying by. I could never make out exactly what they were saying, but when I would catch a few words, I could tell that they quoted a lot of Bible passages, and that they were often angry. God was not pleased with us, they said, and there was a judgment coming. It was time to repent and turn to God. But we – kept right on going, not stopping to consider our lives and the great God the preacher was trying to tell us about.
Paul at the Areopagus is a kind of a street-corner preacher, isn’t he? In our lesson today he is in Athens, wandering through the city. While he is there he is disturbed by all the idols that he sees, and hebegins by speaking in the synagogues and to everyone he meets about Jesus and the resurrection. Finally, people are curious and they invite him to the Areopagus – a rocky hill which serves asa meeting place where people gather to hear new ideas. According to the verse right before our lesson starts, the people of Athens are always interested in new ideas.) And what we hear today is Paul’s "street corner preaching" to the people who are gathered.
It’s tempting to make fun of the preachers who stand on street corners, I suppose. But they are doing one thing right, at least – they are not just in the church, but they are out in the street, in the marketplace, talking about God. They are out where the people are living and working and trying to get by, like Paul was in Athens, and wherever he traveled. It’s tempting to make fun of "street corner preachers", but at least in one way, they are meeting the people where they are, just like Paul did. They are "going public" with their with their faith, and just like Paul, they are preaching repentance – they are exhorting people to turn to God.
But that’s where the similarity ends. For one thing Paul doesn’t do is rattle off a lot of Bible passages. He’s speaking to people who have no knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, so he doesn’t use scripture at all. As he wants to introduce them to the God he believes in, the God he trusts, instead he looks around him and notices the marketplace and the culture of Athens. He notices all of the different altars there are and he comments, "I see that you are very religious." He starts where they are – and amid all of the altars and the marketplace and the bustling, busy people he notices, he sees one altar that bears the inscription "To an unknown God." Who knows where that came from? Perhaps in a time of famine or war or difficulty, the people were praying to all of their different gods and decided that they must be leaving someone out, and so they created a new altar, "to an unknown god," just to be sure. There’s a kind of humility there as well, isn’t there? To an unknown god....it’s as if the people of Athens are admitting – we don’t know everything. There’s more knowledge, more wisdom, more out there that we haven’t discovered yet. And so this is where Paul begins: this unknown god – he tells them – this is the god I am going to tell you about.
In a way, that’s still the task today, and for us, isn’t it? To make known the unknown god. For even though there are stacks of books in the religion section of the libraries and the bookstores, and even though there are many churches throughout our community and in this religious nation of ours, there is still a sense that our God is still "the unknown god." In our marketplaces, there are still many competing altars, promising us peace or security, wealth or success, popularity, or beauty of love. If only we will serve them. There are the cruel gods that preach the message that it’s important to be the last survivor on the island. There are the soothing gods telling us if only we say this or that affirmation, we can heal our lives. There are gods that tell us if pray the right prayer, god will make us successful. This is still a sense that the God we believe in and the God we trust is an unknown God – the God who created the heavens and the earth, but who dwells with us, "in whom we live and move and have our being," as Paul tells the Athenians. There’s still a sense that our God – the God who in Jesus went to the cross – is still unknown. And it is we – the church – who, through our words and actions, make him known.
But how do we do that? How do we do that? Well, for most of us, it’s not by standing on street corners (I think I hear a collective sigh of relief!) But it is by recognizing that we have something in common with one another, whether we are believers or not, but simply by being members of the human family. Paul doesn’t start his sermon by shouting about all of the idols. He begins by observing, "I see you are very religious." He notices them sweeping in front of their altars, and polishing the brass on the artifacts, and taking good care of the temples, and he tells them about a God big enough to take care of them. "He gives to all mortals life and breath and all things." He tells them about an expansive god, a god wide enough, and big enough to encompass the whole world, to embrace the whole world, and everyone in it.
A long time ago while I was living in Japan, I learned about a man who had been a general during World War II. In fact, he was important enough that he had gotten a paragraph mention in one of the popular military history books, as he had something to do with military strategy in the Pacific. Sometimes after the war, he had become a Christian, and was present every Sunday at Musashino Church in Tokyo, always sitting faithfully in the same spot. The missionary who knew him told me that when he became a Christian, he threw away his "god shelf" – where his ancestors supposedly were – and gave himself completely to the Christian faith. Bt this is a difficult decision for a Japanese, for whom "taking care of the ancestors" is an important family obligation. What was it that finally convinced him to be baptized and live as a Christian? It was the creation stories in Genesis – and particularly the story of the creation of the whole world. In Japan, he explained, the creation stories only mentioned the creation of Japan. But the Christian god was the god of the Whole World.
And yet, that is not enough to know, is it? It’s not enough for us. It’s a beginning. To know that god is the creator of heaven and earth, is the God of Japan and the U.S., the God of Germany and Afghanistan, of Israel and Palestine. God is the Lord of all the nations – and yet God is also near to us – ‘indeed, he is not far from each one of us.’ We reach out and try to grasp him, we are searching for him, and yet – he’s so close, ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’ So close, but still sometimes we don’t wee.
Dr. Rachel Remen tells the story of a young boy with cancer, with a dismal diagnosis. He was a wonderful and happy child, and all the different treatments were taking a toll on him, changing him. And they were running out of options. They finally tried something very experimental, but everyone was very pessimistic. They were sure it wouldn’t work. Dr. Remen talks about reading his blood charts each day and giving the bad news to his parents. Sometimes it would go up a little, but always a little, and she told them, "It’s within the margin of error." His blood started at about a 6, and each day she saw the same thing, until one day, she gave is mother the news, and the boy’s mother touched her arm and said, "He’s getting better! My boy is getting better!" His blood levels had gone up to 7.4. He WAS getting better, but she didn’t see it. She couldn’t see it.
God is so close to us, but most of the time we don’t see: because we don’t expect to see him with the poor, we don’t expect to see him with the outcasts, we don’t expect to see him with the hungry, we don’t expect to see him on the cross. God in Christ is so close to us, but most of the time we don’t see. And we don’t expect to see him feeding the hungry, and we don’t expect to see him welcoming the outcasts, and we don’t expect to see him raising up, empowering the poor. We don’t expect to see him risen from the dead, and living among us: giving us life.
We don’t expect to see him, but he’s here, reaching out to us, loving us, giving us life. And not us only -- but the whole world. The unknown god -- made known in Christ -- and as we live and love the world. AMEN
Disclaimer: I did not mean to hit publish so soon. (oops!)