Sermon from October 1st, 2017

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“Basic Christianity #17: How Can We Know God?”

Acts 17:16-34; John 12:44-50

By Pastor John Bent

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Good morning! Were you able to catch a little sun last Friday?  What a beautiful day! As I understand it fair weather has returned to Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico, but the devastation and chaos remain. Christians are gathering for their second Sunday to worship, sing, and pray amid the wreckage. Water and electricity are still not on in many places, but Jesus is there. Let’s begin by praying for them.

“Heavenly Father, salvation, redemption, deliverance come from you alone. Bring the help our brothers and sisters need in these devastated places. Let your perfect love drive out fear, deliver them from those who would use this tragedy for their own profit, restore safety and security and lights and water for everyone who is there. This we pray in Jesus name!”

Let’s open our Bibles to Acts 17:16.  Paul is on his second missionary journey.  He has arrived in the great city of Athens. A very important thing happened there that is directly connected with our gathering here this morning. Let me show you.

From Philippi, Paul and his evangelism team headed south down the coast of Greece sharing the Gospel. In each city they began in the Jewish synagogue. Both God-fearing Gentiles and Jews were converted and churches were established.  But his enemies followed him stirring up the local authorities and spreading lies about them.

Finally things got so dangerous that the team put Paul on a ship and sent him ahead to Athens.  Luke writes, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Acts 17:16

One ancient traveler said it was easier to find a ‘god’ than a man in Athens. The streets were packed with temples and shrines and idols dedicated to the worship of everything imaginable. Paul was deeply distressed by this smorgasbord of paganism.

I understand how Paul felt. I’ve been in places that were so disgustingly pagan that I wanted to cut and run.  All too often that’s what God’s people have done.  Rather than engaging our lost neighbors in respectful conversation, we’ve disappeared. We’ve gather in our holy huddles and ignore the call God has given us. Jesus didn’t do that, neither should we!

If people are going to come to know Jesus and the new life that is in him, we can’t wait for them to come to us, we must go to them. Lord, give the love and courage we need!

Four years ago my youngest daughter and her husband moved to NYC. They soon found themselves attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church in mid-Manhattan where they met Pastor Timothy Keller.  His ministry in Manhattan is very similar to the Apostle Paul in Athens. Keller says God called him and his family to one of the most intellectually sophisticated and pagan places on earth to engage lost people in honest respectful spiritual conversations. Often these conversations led to faith in Jesus Christ.

Some of the questions Keller continually faces go like this. “Does God really exist? If he does, how can we know him and what does he want from me?”

In most of the places Paul went, he engaged in conversations with people who already believed in the God of the Bible, but in Athens, something new takes place, his conversations spill into the streets and marketplace among atheists and pagans.

Soon some of the best pagan philosophers of the day invited Paul to present his case at the Aeropagus. This is a rock about the size of this room on the north edge of Athens where scholars met to discuss the latest ideas and religious fads of the day.  Often the attitude under these invitations went like this. “Tell me what you think and I’ll tell you where you’re wrong.”

Sounds like the student union in college. Kind of a pompous exercise in shared ignorance! When I was in Athens, I visited the Aeropagus and I tried to imagine what I would say if I had the opportunity to tell to these pagan intellectuals about Jesus.

Before we go any further, remember what Paul had already been through as a result of sharing about Jesus. He’d been stoned and left for dead. He’d been flogged and thrown in a dungeon. What kind of courage kept him going? Remember what Jesus said, “You will receive power when the HS comes on you and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

Was this the power to conquer and crush your enemies in debate? No, it was the power to love them, even while they were stoning and crucifying you.  John wrote, “Perfect love drives out fear”.  If the Holy Spirit dwells in you, then you have the same power as Paul did.

Let’s see what Paul said to them. “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  As I walked around I even found an altar with this inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”

There’s an interesting story behind that altar. 100 years earlier a terrible plague had hit Athens. People believed the plague was punishment from an offended god. So the king ordered everyone to sacrifice offerings to every god they could think of to stop the plague. Offerings were made to hundreds of gods but the plague continued. Then someone suggested maybe there was an unknown god that needed to be placated. So an altar was erected, sacrifices were offered and shortly thereafter the plague stopped.

Paul uses this as a starting point. He says, “This (unknown) God of yours is the One who made the world and everything in it. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He does not live in temples built by human hands. He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” Acts 17:24-25

The pagan philosophers to whom Paul was speaking were atheists. If God did exist, he was a cosmic principle like the force in Star Wars. They rejected the carnival of gods, idols, shrines that filled the city of Athens as false. They were right to do so.

They thought Paul was just one more religious huckster adding his god to the pile of other gods that already filled the city. They couldn’t wait to punch holes in his message. But Paul’s words were unlike any they had heard before. Paul testified that this unknown God wasn’t just the patron god of sailors, or farmers, or soldiers or athletes. This God is real. They ridiculed him. “What’s this babbler trying to say” but Paul refuses to be intimidated.

Paul goes on “… He gives all men life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17:25

These philosophers had given their lives to climbing the ladder of knowledge. They believed the purpose of life was to be successful and happy because that’s all there is.

All the temples and idols that filled Athens were built for the same reason - to find a way to get the gods off our back and maybe help us become successful and happy. So what do you think? Have things in the world changed much from 2000 years ago in Athens?

Pastor Tim Keller asks the young intellectuals in Manhattan the same kinds of questions Paul might have asked the philosophers of Athens. “Are the things you are investing your life in building a better world? Are they fulfilling your soul? What if, rather than an accident of evolution, we really are children of an Almighty God? What if he created us for a purpose greater than just pleasing ourselves? What if we’ve been running away from God and his purpose for our lives and as a result of that, even our greatest accomplishments end up being empty?  We end up living for and arguing about things that really don’t matter?  Where do we go from here?”

 Paul answers these questions in vs 31 “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:31

Some of these philosophers sneered when Paul mentioned the resurrection of the dead, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  A door had been opened. Luke also tells us that one of the philosophers there that day was named Dionysius. He later became a believer and the first bishop of Athens.

So what do we learn from Paul’s encounter with these pagan philosophers in ancient Athens? “How can we know God?”

1. We can’t know God unless God reveals himself to us. Until then we are blind to it no matter how obvious it may be. Every Godward move we make in our lives is because God has drawn us to himself. God’s revelation of himself to us is always a sign of his love for us.

2. How does God reveal himself? First, through what he has created. The wonder of creation should bring us to our knees in praise. We can learn about God in the wonder of creation, but we won’t find him hiding in creation. Looking for God in creation or by logic or science is like trying to find Leonardo da Vinci hiding in the Mona Lisa.
The second and greater way God reveals himself is through his Word. If you want to know God, you must open your Bible and read it, meditate on it, live by it and let it live in you.

The final greatest revelation of God is Jesus. When you open your heart to Jesus and invite him to take up residence in your heart you will know God. That’s the message we have to share. It’s not an argument; it’s a testimony to what God has done for us. He’s forgiven our sins and given us love and hope. Even the greatest intellect can’t argue with that!


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