The Unknown God

Preached at Alger First UMC on 5/21/2017

 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)

When I first moved into the parsonage next door, I couldn’t use the garage. I can’t remember why, either it wasn’t built yet or it was the site for Commodities, the monthly food pantry here – which was a great use for the garage, by the way. Either way, I parked in the church parking lot in the last spot closest to my house for my first several months in the house.

So when I would get home after dark, I would park my car in that spot and walk the short distance to my front door. And often, if it was a clear night, I would find myself looking up at the sky, blown away at the sheer beauty of all the stars in the sky. No matter how cold it was, I would have to stop for at least a few seconds to take it all in. I know the stars are there every night and I know I’m in town where the lights keep me from getting the whole view. But those stars never fail to blow me away.

I know that the discipline of astronomy has done wonders, diving into the mystery of the stars and the cosmos beyond the world, discovering beauties of creation beyond this earth. But when I look at the stars at night, I always get a sense that there is more out there than what could ever be discovered.  Science is incredibly important in helping us discover and learn more and more about the mystery. But the stars at night never fail to draw out those unasked questions and the unacknowledged needs about the ‘something more’ in life.

I’m sure we all have experiences like this. I think of the mystery of crops growing. By studying agriculture, we know how plants grow, right? We know how roots grow out, we know what water does to them, we know how photosynthesis works. We know how all that works, and that’s a really good thing. But in some way, there’s something profound in the growth of plants, whether it’s a single flower in your garden or a whole field of corn or wheat or soybeans. We get this sense that there’s more happening here than our eyes can see or our instruments can study.

I also think of the mystery of birth. Anatomically, we know what’s going on, we’ve discovered how it works and that’s a very good thing. But when we hold in our arms a brand new human being whose life began just minutes or hours or just a few days ago, how can we avoid marveling at the wonder of creation and the mystery of it all, no matter how deep our understanding goes?

Stars, plants, birth, and so much more. At least once in a while, I think we all unavoidably get this sense, whether we acknowledge it or not. We get this sense that there is something more than we can observe going on around us. There is a ‘something more.’ And we human beings are intrinsically and unavoidably drawn to it, whatever that ‘something more’ is.

I think this reveals something very important about the God whom we worship. Within each one of us and every single person who has ever existed and will ever exist, God has implanted a desire and need for connection with that ‘something more’ – God. And God is currently drawing us toward that connection with God through stars, plants, birth, and all the other mysteries of life. They all evoke so many deep questions and ponderings that so often go unasked. They all draw up our need and desire for something more that so often goes unacknowledged.

If you can think back with me to that passage from Acts we read together a few minutes ago, we read about that past action of God and the present work of God. God implanted within the Athenians a desire for something more. They too had unasked questions. They too had unacknowledged needs. And God was at that moment drawing them in.

Paul’s sermon to the crowd of Athenians on Mars Hill starts with him praising them for their great religious devotion. He says “I can see how devoted you are in all the objects of worship you have all throughout the city – your altars, your temples, your idols.” Paul sees that the Athenians’ unasked questions and unacknowledged needs have led them on this search – where are they being drawn, to whom do they belong? What is that ‘something more’ that’s out there?

These Athenians are unfailingly curious for what else is out there. So they build more and more altars and idols and temples in search of it. Maybe they started with one altar or idol, but it didn’t help them in their search. So they built another one, bigger and better, but that one didn’t satisfy them either, they were still left with questions and needs. They were still searching. So they built another temple and another idol and another altar, and on and on and on until the whole city is filled with them. But they’re still curious for what else is out there. They’re still not sure of where being drawn because they tell Paul a few verses before that passage “You are bringing up these strange ideas; we’ve never heard these before, so tell us more so that we might understand.”

So Paul hears their unasked questions and feels their unacknowledged needs, and preaches truth into them. I love this part of his sermon. He says “I was looking at all your objects of worship around this city, and I even found an altar with this inscription: “To an unknown God.” It’s like Paul is telling the Athenians “You’re so religious that you even worship what you don’t know!”

That altar to the unknown God is one of the best symbols for this journey toward the mystery, the search for the ‘something more’ that’s out there, the draw toward…someone. I can picture one of the Athenians thinking “we keep building these temples and altars and idols, but we’re never satisfied. We haven’t found what we’re looking for, we still have unasked questions, we still have unacknowledged needs. Maybe we should just build an altar to an “unknown God” to recognize that we long for the ‘something more’ that remains unknown to us. We don’t know what it is, so here’s an altar to whatever that ‘something more’ is.”

So Paul sees this monument to the unasked questions, the unacknowledged needs, and he finds a foothold here for the Gospel. He says “That which you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.” He says “This unconscious search for that which is missing in your life – this is a good search. You have unasked questions. This Gospel of the resurrected Jesus Christ is the actual question and the true answer. You have an unacknowledged need for something more. I have the Good News which will acknowledge your need, meet that need, and fill you full if you accept it. This Jesus I proclaim is so sufficient that you won’t need any of these other idols – you’ll be able to get rid of those, you won’t need them. This Gospel and this God, revealed in Jesus, are all you’ll ever need.”

This calls us examine ourselves.

What are our unasked questions and unacknowledged needs?

We see it in the stars, we see it in nature, we see it in agriculture, we see it in babies – the mystery and wonder of life brings us back to the search. Something or someone created this place with care and love and grace and compassion. Who did this? And how can we find them?

St. Augustine was a bishop of the church in North Africa all the way back in the fourth century. He wrote a lot of beautiful books and he still influences us in the church to this day. One of my favorite quotes of his comes from his book simply titled Confessions. It speaks to this inherent and inescapable search for the ‘something more’ in life. In one of his prayers in this book, he prays to God:

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”

Our hearts are restless until they find rest in God because we were made for God. And so we search for God ceaselessly until we find God, until we find that rest for which we long.

The Athenians were searching in the same way we are. Their search led them into idol worship. Now we might condemn them for that idol-worship, but remember – they were motivated by that intrinsic search for ‘something more,’ the same as us – we’re searching too. The Athenians’ hearts were restless until they would find rest in God just like ours are. In our own search for rest today, we do the same thing the Athenians did. So this calls us to examine ourselves. What altars, temples, and idols have we built to answer those questions ourselves and meet those needs ourselves?

Maybe we’ve made idols of our own accomplishments. I was a trumpet major in college and I had this kind of idol in my life. I practiced trumpet 2-3 hours/day – that’s not an exaggeration, I was obsessed with it, it got kind of unhealthy at times. And I was in the Wind Orchestra, Brass Ensemble, jazz band, and the symphony orchestra all in the same semester. I did all of that partly because I genuinely loved playing and loved music, and I still do. But I also did all of that, drove myself crazy, and didn’t sleep so that I could have all these accomplishments under my belt, so that maybe the whole Music Department would look at me and say “Wow, he’s got it goin on.” Now, they never did that, because that was ridiculous. But my thinking was “Maybe if I can achieve enough, I can find the ‘something more.’”

Maybe we’ve made idols of our money. To be honest, I think this is the #1 idol of all of us as a country. Maybe if we can get more and more money – because we never have enough money – maybe if we can get as much money as possible, no matter who’s hurt in the process, no matter what unsavory or ugly parts we have to ignore, maybe then we can find the ‘something more.’

Maye we’ve made an idol out of our possessions. If we can have a good enough car, if we have the newest iPhone, if we can have the best clothes, then maybe we can find the ‘something more.’

Maybe if we can get all of that then that unasked question will be answered, that unacknowledged need will be met. Maybe then our hearts will find rest. Maybe if we keep building altars and temples and idols until our cities are filled, maybe if we build our own altar to the unknown god just to make sure our bases are all covered, maybe then we will find that ‘something more.’

God has implanted within each one of us questions that simply cannot be answered through our accomplishments or money or more friends or more possessions. We search in so many places for this rest, but our hearts will only find true rest in the one true God, revealed in the risen Jesus who Paul preached.

God has implanted these questions and needs in all humans. By simply being here in this space, we all have taken at least a few steps forward on this journey of finding the questions and answers leading to completeness. Even if we’ve gotten held up and settled for less, we’ve at least started.

So because we’ve all at least started the journey, each of us and all of us called to come alongside our family, neighbors, coworkers, and anyone else in our life and simply invite them to accompany us on this journey to address our unasked questions and unacknowledged needs by searching for our very much ‘know-able’ God.

We are all drawn toward this ‘something more.’ We who call ourselves Christians just happen to believe we are finding it. So we’re called to invite others along with us on this journey because we’ve found this Jesus who loves us and welcomes us and wants to connect with us as much as we want to connect with him. Jesus is the One for which we and everyone else has been searching for, and we have found Him.

In a way, it would be cruel and conceited to not invite others along with us. You and I have already begun the journey toward repentance which we believe will lead us to salvation in Jesus Christ. And if we believe that God has called the whole world to repentance, to turn from our idolatrous ways, and to look to the light of the world, then why wouldn’t we invite others along with us?

In essence, this is our call to evangelism. I don’t think evangelism is an angry person standing on a street corner with a bullhorn and a hateful sign. I don’t think evangelism is just a polished, charismatic, well-dressed spokesperson presenting a flawless message. Maybe evangelism is really all about inviting our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and community along on this journey you and I have already started. God has implanted the same draw within every human being, no matter who we are or where we’re from or what we look like. You and I are just a bit further down the path than others. So let’s invite others to journey with us. It’s not any fun to do it alone.

You see, the Gospel answers our unasked questions and meets our unacknowledged needs. We are made for God and will be restless until we allow ourselves to welcome God’s warm embrace. So may we push forward on this journey and invite others along with us

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