As we enter an unpromisingly damp August, the height of the great British summer, I wonder if you are dreaming of far away places where the sun always shines… Imagine, then, that you are transported unexpectedly to Athens. I wonder what you would choose to do first. Retsina and stuffed vine leaves in the sun, or perhaps a spot of sight seeing? Athens has attracted visitors for centuries, and it’s the sort of place where past and present seem to blend into one another.… Tourists in the city tread in the footprints of generations – including the apostle Paul He too arrived there unexpectedly, thanks to a necessary deviation in his preaching itinerary. He had literally made the town too hot for him after his last preaching engagement…and was diverted to Athens for his own safety. At a loose end he wandered around, enjoying all there was to see….and casting a professional eye over Athenian places of worship. This is his starting point for a sermon notable because it’s the only one of his that appears to have been recorded fully…a sermon often held up as a model of good preaching. To start with, the venue is significant. Paul does not place himself in a synagogue with a band of the gathered faithful…. The message he has to share is too important for caution, or even discretion. Rather he goes for maximum challenge, in the hope of maximum impact. He takes his message to the place of greatest influence in all Athens. .The "Areopagus" is both a place, a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis (Greek for "hill of Ares" or in Latin "Mars Hill"), and an institution, the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens In Paul's day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated. Paul, who had been publicly proclaiming the Way of Jesus, was ridiculed by these movers and shakers as a "babbler" who advocated "foreign gods” But the Athenians loved a good discussion, and so they invited Paul to speak for himself at this most important venue…and Paul makes the most of the invitation. . He begins by making connections with his audience.He sets out to win their confidence, to build bridges so that it seems that they may have something in common after all as he admires their city, and compliments them on their religious practice… It’s a good technique. Instead of being on the defensive, they are likely to drop their guard, to trust this man despite his foreign ways. Wherever he goes, Paul sees signs that the citizens of Athens are intent on spiritual matters, with a shrine for every eventuality and even one to spare.
The story behind the shrine to the unknown god is in itself worth considering, with its underlying message of the need to hedge your bets in matters of faith and worship. Sometime in the sixth century before Christ, the city of Athens was being devastated by a mysterious plague. When no explanation for the plague could be found, and no cure was in sight, it was assumed that one of the city’s many gods had been offended. The leaders of the city sought to determine which of the gods it was, with a view to appeasing him. This was no easy task, since the city of Athens had literally hundreds of gods, and was pretty much the “god capital of the world,” a place so full of gods that (says one commentator) the Athenians “must have needed something equivalent to the Yellow Pages just to keep tabs on the many deities already represented in their city.” When all efforts failed to discern which god had been offended, an outside “consultant” was brought in from the Island of Cyprus, Epimenides. He concluded that it was none of the known gods of Athens which had been offended, but some, as yet, unknown god. He proposed a course of action which, if it worked, would at least provide a possible remedy for the plague. He had a flock of choice sheep, kept from food until they were hungry. On the appointed day, he had these sheep turned loose on the verdant pastures of Mars Hill. A flock of hungry sheep was bound to graze – but Epimenides was on the lookout to see if by any chance any decided against this. To the amazement of onlookers, several sheep did lie down, ignoring the lush grass beneath their hooves. Altars were erected at each spot where a sheep lay down, dedicated to an “unknown god.” On those altars, - by a cruel twist of pagan logic, the sheep concerned were sacrificed.
Almost immediately, we are told, the plague began to subside. Over a period of time, the altars were forgotten, with just one preserved, in commemoration of the removal of the plague by calling upon the “unknown god.” Who would have thought that centuries later, a foreigner named Paul would refer to this altar as the starting point for his sermon on Mars Hill?
That, you’ll be thinking, is a good story – but what does it have to do with us. After all, we are the products of a far more sophisticated age… We’d never indulge in that sort of behaviour. The sheep of Athens would be safe with us. Ummmm
Are you quite sure?
Look around you…open your newspaper, turn on the television.
There are all the overt spiritual adventures beloved of New Age devotees, of course – and we don’t have far to travel to encounter those…
There are crystals, tarot and all sorts of meditation systems…or you could sign up to be a Jedi if you prefer…
Beliefs that range from the slightly off-course to the wildly implausible all have their adherents.
But there are also any number of other belief systems that attract worship today. Wealth
Maybe good in themselves (though not always)…but all of these are transformed by anxious searchers into ultimate goods – things to be treasured and affirmed as the answer to all our needs… Gods, in fact – though gods whose power to sustain and transform is so limited that it is, in fact, non existent….
And perhaps as we gather in this lovely building, which has gained so much support from people far and near, we ought also to consider another potential danger…
24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything,
We love our holy places, and rightly so…but they carry with them a risk Listen to a friend of mine, Justin Lewis Anthony, writing recently in the Guardian
“Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God is everywhere; equally present at the high altar of Salisbury Cathedral as he is in the open-cast gold mines of Brazil. However, human beings are not very good at realising this. We seem to see God, know God, better in certain places than in others. We explain this away, by saying that "I'm more open to God in the beauty of nature" or "the veil between earth and heaven is somehow thinner here", and so the custom of pilgrimage grows up: places become hallowed by the recognition and prayers of others: it is possible to know God better in this particular place, and we divide the world into holy and profane.”
It is so horribly easy, I fear, to find ourselves confused…To treasure beautiful buildings for their own sake, instead of recognising that they are at best only signposts to the beauty that is beyond all human skill and art. But God cannot be confined in even a grade1* PreRaphaelite dwelling God is at large in all of God’s world – unpredictable, challenging, exciting…
God is at large – but God is also closer than we think, more intimate than we can imagine.
There is no chance of concealing our true serves, of hiding behind our best faces from the One in whom we live, move and have our being. We may feel safer if we assume an idealised version of ourselves as we come to worship…- and it’s tricky, because God does indeed recognise and honour our aspirations to be different, better – but God isn’t fooled.
Not for one moment.
So we need to be honest with ourselves about just who we are, - and we can take this risk without any fear because God knows us inside out…and still God loves us
God loves us because …ALL of us….regardless of colour, creed, race or sexual orientation are God’s own children.
In the same way that we cannot proscribe or limit where God may choose to dwell, we cannot limit those to whom God relates.
Everyone is related…everyone is invited.
That’s a message that is both radical and exciting, a message that challenges each of us as we reflect on our tendencies to worship with like minded souls in ways that we find congenial.
We have other family members whom we ought to know and delight in.
Others who share the inheritance of love and glory that is God’s gift to his children.
So where will we find God?
Not among the sites of Athens, nor among the shrines that throng our streets and dominate our homes today.
We will find God wherever we seek God– for the whole world is a sacrament of God’s presence. Our God is not unknown…
For in Christ Jesus God meets us where we are, and invites us to join him where He is.