For years a particular church had been growing. Folks from every walk of life were attending. The music was good, the coffee was good, they were adding to their numbers every week, but what was the best was the preaching. That preacher could take to the pulpit and the congregation was like putty. We he wanted them to cry, they bawled. When he wanted them to laugh, it was comedy central. When he wanted them to give, they couldn’t give enough. Word of this church made its way all the way to heaven, so Jesus decided that he would like to see it for himself. Choosing a Sunday at random he showed up. No one recognized him, but he remembered that the disciples had a hard enough time recognizing him after the resurrection also, so he wasn’t concerned. No one welcomed him, but my goodness, they were busy, so that was OK too. Intent on seeing it all, he made his way to the front pew and sat dead center (he stuck out there, as no one else was in the first several pews, preferring to gather towards the back).
Before the first note had cleared the air of the opening hymn, the people were on their feet, singing praises to God. Jesus joined in, but he didn’t sense anything. The people prayed, but Jesus didn’t hear anything. So, when the preacher took to the pulpit, he was definitely ready for something. Half way through the sermon, Jesus was found sound asleep.
Now, don’t take that as a condemnation of you – it’s not – or any other church – it’s not – but there is truth in it, for any church can produce fruit as evidenced by numbers and the level of activity, but the question would be: is it good fruit? Would Jesus recognize it? It is something that we must alway be attentive to. The issue that can arise is that we can be deceived into thinking we have found God and are on the right path, while in fact, we are lost, wandering around in the darkness and not even aware of it. What might that look like?
The Apostle Paul had been preaching in Thessalonica, but as was normal, he fell afoul of the Jewish religious leaders, so those with him sent on to Athens. While there, the Book of Acts tells us that he became deeply distressed as he wandered the streets because he saw so many idols that the people were worshiping. So, doing what Paul did best, he started stirring things up there, just like he had in Thessalonica. He proclaimed Jesus as Lord in the synagogues and in the marketplace to anyone who would listen. Some of those listening said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” So they took him to the Areopagus (which seems to be a place of discussion and learning) and said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” They always wanted to be in the know of the latest fad or new religion.
This is where our reading from the Acts of the Apostles began this morning, “Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’”
Today, to say that someone is “religious” is a bit of an insult, but I don’t believe that Paul intended it as such, after all, the Gospel had not been presented in Athens before. Instead, Paul was making reference to all the idols, simply saying, I see that you are those who desire to know what is beyond this earth, but – he says – you are looking in the wrong place. He then told them, that as he was walking through the city and looking at the various idols, “I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”
You might think that in a city with all these gods they would have them all covered, and perhaps, with this altar to the unknown god, they were just covering their behinds in the event that they had missed one, but maybe there’s more to it. Maybe the person who built that altar, looked around at all the other gods in the city and thought to themselves, “Yes, but we’re missing something. There is something more. We are seeking, we are searching, but we have yet to find that which we are looking for, so I will build this altar to this ‘unknown god’ in hopes that one day, we will truly find Him.” As David wrote in the Psalms, “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” So, just maybe this is why the altar to the “unknown god” was built, because they were continuing to seek. Enter the Apostle Paul who says to those who seek, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands…” He then goes onto tell them about the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
He told them, “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” He put us in this place, at this time, so that we would search for Him. So that we would grope for him – my mind sees someone intentionally wandering through a cave, desperately and passionately seeking God – in all faith believing that we will find Him. And there lies the problem, because in our groping and in our searching, we can come to believe that we have truly found Him. We know the mind and the will of God. We’ve got all the answers.
In the process, that version, our chiseled in stone understanding of God becomes the idol. We no longer seek him or grope for him. We no longer allow His Spirit to work in us, to continue to mold us as a potter molds the clay. Instead, we believe that we have found him so completely that we grasp that image of him, shove him down into something we have made with our own hands, and worship what we have made. In the process, he becomes just another idol in Athens. One more god made of wood or stone or even gold, but no matter how precious the material be, it’s still nothing more than an idol, and no matter how beautifully we sing, how passionately we pray, how amazing the preaching is… Jesus is still going to fall asleep in the front pew.
I think it is the epitome of arrogance for one to say that they know the will of God with all certainty. I think God would come back on such a person as he did Job, “Who the heck do you think you are?” Or as he said to Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Therefore, in great humility, we must continually seek the Lord. Searching for Him, groping for Him in faith, believing that we may find Him, but still allow Him to work in us and through us.
It may be a bit too uncertain for some, but I think Thomas Merton was onto something when he wrote: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.79)
Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” Pray that we do not silence or hinder the Spirit of God by no longer searching for Him. Pray that we will always desire Him and His presence. Pray that the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit of God continues to work in you and in us as the Church, as we continue to seek and grope for Him and His will in our lives and His Church, so that we may produce good fruit in our own lives and in the world.
Let us pray:
Gracious and Holy Father,
Please give us:
intellect to understand you,
reason to discern you,
diligence to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
a spirit to know you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
ears to hear you,
eyes to to see you,
a tongue to proclaim you,
a way of life pleasing to you,
patience to wait for you
and perseverance to search for you.
Grant us a perfect end,
your holy presence,
a blessed resurrection
and life everlasting.