Have you ever had that situation where you come across someone you should know? You’re 100% sure you’ve met them before but you can’t remember their name. When that happens to me I start to run through the alphabet in my head and attribute names to the letter to see if that works – 9 times out of 10 it does. Alan, Anthony, Arthur, Barry, Brian, Benjamin.
Names are important. That’s why when Moses was sent to free Israel from slavery he asked God – what if they ask your name. Even in society the old saying goes – it’s not what you know but WHO you know. God himself knew the importance of names and enshrined his own name as one of the commandments – you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. And in response to his humility by dying on the cross, God gave to Jesus the name that is above all names. And at the name of Jesus every knee would bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. And this is the situation that Paul is facing as he is visiting Athens.
Paul says to the people – as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ So it’s a case of they knew WHAT they were worshipping – god- but they didn’t know WHO they were worshipping. And the problem with that is that if you don’t know WHO you are worshipping then you don’t know WHAT it is that they can do for you. They are just an inanimate object. It’s what God warned Israel about when they were about to enter the Promised Land and the dangers of worshiping foreign Gods: “There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell”. (Deuteronomy 4:28) Very impersonal.
So many people in society today say that they are spiritual but not religious. Or they say that they believe in God but they don’t believe in institutionalised religion. In other words, they don’t believe you need to go to church to worship God. Many people will say that they are not atheist but they are agnostic. An atheist doesn’t believe in a god or divine being. However, an agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in a god or religious doctrine. We would tend to say that the Athenians fell more into the line of agnostic rather than atheism. They don’t reject God – they don’t know who he is. More and more we are going to discover people in our lives who fall into that category. I believe in a higher power – I just don’t know who he is.
I believe there has to be something more than this – I just don’t know what it is. I don’t want to believe that when I die, that’s it. I’m a good person – surely there has to be something after I die.
Paul explains to the Athenians who this God is these are the points he believes are important: He is: The God who made the world and everything in it, He is: Lord of heaven and earth, He does not live in shrines made by human hands
He is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. So in that description there is no initial mention of sin or judgment – that will come later on when he calls on them to repent. But first Paul is wanting to establish a relation between them and God. Paul’s focus is in getting them to know the God who created them. The God who provides for them. The God who is a personal God. Because God created everything then he has a personal interest in everything. And that helps us to cope in times like these when we wonder whether God is aware of the pain and suffering we are going through. Of course he is – we are his creation – we are his children.
This is the world God created. And God is a personal God. He doesn’t live in human made shrines. He doesn’t live in human made churches. He dwells in the people who gather there. He lives in us. He has made his home in us. And he is a God who doesn’t need us to sacrifice to him. He sacrificed for us. How often don’t we hear people who have rejected God because all he wants is our money. He just wants us to give and give and give. But our God is a God who gives to us and HE gives and gives and gives. I always like that passage in the Old Testament when the prophet Nathan rebukes King David for taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. God say, through Nathan, “I gave your master’s house to you, I gave your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.
God is a God who gives. It’s at the heart of the Gospel in John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
But that doesn’t mean people are automatically going to jump for joy and believe. No, there will always be a level of doubt – a level of rejection. That’s why Peter says to be patient: But in your hearts revere Christ as your Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
In this pandemic we’ve had the perfect opportunity to do such – although because of isolation we probably haven’t had the opportunity to be seen. But we have had the opportunity to stay strong in our faith. To continue to trust God in all this and not fear. And to be obedient to the restrictions. We could have looked for loopholes or maybe taken a risk – who would find out if we had a small church gathering? Maybe we’ve disagreed with the actions being taken. But that’s part of living under authority – which is always God’s authority. HE created the heavens and the earth. Again, that’s what Peter said: it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. And as I’ve said on a few occasions – they have closed our church buildings but we’ve been able to keep worshipping. Because only the human made shrines have been shut.
I was speaking to a resident in one of our nursing homes about the restrictions. She was telling me about her days during World War 2 in the Ukraine when Stalin sent officers from house to house to remove bibles. And any mention of God or Jesus would see you removed from your home. That’s not what is happening to us as we have been able to keep worshipping in new ways. And who knows, maybe this new way may be an opportunity to continue in the future to reach out to people who can’t or won’t come to church. In this pandemic it might have felt at times like God was being silenced.
But God cannot be silenced. Nor has God abandon us through this. No, Jesus himself said in our Gospel reading: I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. God has been right by our side in all this. He has been our Advocate, to be with us forever.
To the world our churches look shut and that’s a shame because they are wide open. And that’s because much of the world sees the church as a physical human made building. And sadly they see God that way too – a human made impersonal object. But Jesus described the church in a different way: In our Creed we confess that the Holy Spirit creates the one holy Christian church on earth. And Jesus says, this is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he lives with you, and he will be in you. Paul wants us to understand that God is not a “what” but a “who”. God is a personal God – not an unknown god. So as we continue to go through this time of isolation, of church shutdowns, of uncertainty – remember that God created the heavens and the earth – and even more important – God created you and he loves you so much that he gave his one and only Son to die for you. And even more than that, he gave his Holy Spirit, the advocate to dwell in you. And that means, God is dwelling in you. So may you know that presence of God and may you always be prepared to give the reason for the hope you have to anyone who asks.