Damariscotta Baptist Church
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community

09/11/16 Sermon - God is Not Far Away

“God is Not Far Away”

Acts 17:16-31

 

Last week we read how Paul had been chased out of two towns, by a mob, which had been enticed by the Jewish leaders, who wanted to make sure Paul was not given the opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul, Silas and Timothy were chased out of Thessalonica, into Berea.

Of course, Paul and Silas immediately began preaching the in the synagogue there, only to have the mob from Thessalonica show up to agitate and stir up the crowds in Berea against them as well. This time, Paul was sent on his way to the sea alone, and Silas and Timothy remained in Berea. Paul made it to Athens, and decided to wait there until Silas and Timothy could safely meet up with him.

Today’s Scripture has Paul in Athens and while  waiting for his collegues, he walked around, taking in the sights. Here is some of what he would have seen:

Athens was an old city, that had tremendous historical greatness, but at the time Paul was there in the first century, Athens had diminished to no more than ten thousand, and was deemed as poverty stricken, after its war with Rome. Athens had been given the status of a “free city” because of its historical past. This status allowed it to remain a great city of philosophy, architecture, art and religion.

It was with the religious aspect Paul finds his point of conflict.

As Paul walked through the city we read he was incensed with the plethora of idols.

Paul responded eagerly to his invitation, from some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who had been reasoning with him in the marketplace, to share his thoughts with the elite thinkers at the Areopagus.

What exactly was significant about the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers?

Epicureans pursued pleasure as the chief purpose in life. It was the philosophical system or doctrine of Epicurus, who believed the external world was a series of fortuitous combinations of atoms and the highest good was pleasure, and pleasure was interpreted as having freedom from disturbance or pain. Therefore, they avoided disturbing passions and superstitious fears, including the fear of death. They lived in Athens, a city of thousands of gods, so they did not deny the existence of gods, but they believed there was no connection between gods and humans.

This was in direct contrast from Greek history that was made up of a multitude of gods that interacted with humans, as well as, the beliefs of the Stoics.

Stoics were of the philosophy founded by Zeno, who taught that people should be free from passion and if something was necessary, one should submit to it without complaint. They were also pantheists, and believed that everything was god and god was in everything. Humankind had no particular destiny and could go any direction.

These philosophies don’t sound too different from the prevailing philosophies of our post-modern era today. Secular humanism’s scientific empiricism and the New Age pantheistic type of postmodernism are quite similar to those of the Epicureans and Stoics of Paul’s day.

In other words, Epicurus would have supported the “Big Bang Theory” taught today in our schools as the way the world began. And Zeno would support those today who believe there are no absolutes, it all depends on how one “feels” about the situation that makes it right or wrong.

As we review Paul’s speech to the intellectuals of Athens, we should be thinking of how we can use it as a model for how to witness to the educated post-modern mind. Paul had a skill of taking what was present in the day, and using it to reveal that Jesus was an integral part of how things worked for both the world and humans.

Paul began his address, not with Scripture, which would not have been familiar to those listening, but instead, with a general reference to religion.

At first you would think that Paul was addressing the Athenians in a positive way by stating that he saw they were very religious because of all the idols Paul observed, when in reality Paul was disgusted. But he managed to find a point of reference where he could build his argument. Amongst their religiosity Paul saw an altar with an inscription which read, “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD”. In fact, Athens was actually filled with statutes dedicated “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD”, because six hundred years before Paul, a terrible plague came on the city of Athens and a man named Epimenides had an idea. He let loose a flock of sheep through the town and wherever they lay down, they would sacrifice that sheep to the god that had the nearest shrine or temple. If a sheep lay down near no shrine or temple, they would create one and sacrifice the sheep “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD”.

Paul understood that in order for the Greeks to make certain they had covered everything, they had an altar to an unknown god in case they had missed one. Paul declared he had come to enlighten them and set them straight on who this unknown God really was.

First of all, the real God, made the world and everything in it, and is Lord of heaven and earth. Paul made sure they understood, that God was separate from His creation. He also wanted them to understand that God was so big, He was unable to be created by human hands, or by anything created by human hands. Paul takes the Athenians back to the beginning, where God creates the universe, which was in direct contrast with what the Epicureans believed, that the beginning was a chance combination of atoms creating everything, or the belief of the Stoics that there were many gods involved in putting everything together.

Paul understood, that the ideas about God needed to be addressed first, by establishing the existence of God, according to what God told us about Himself in the Bible. This was Paul’s foundation.

Paul’s second significant point was that we are all descendants from one man, every nation of humankind. We should seek God, in the hope that we might feel our way toward Him and find Him.

Yet, the reality is, He is actually not far from each one of us.

Don’t let that verse slip past you. Many of us in this room have come to recognize the fact that God is not far from us, because we have established a walking and talking relationship with Him.

There is a problem that may arise with familiarity. We can easily take it for granted.

The newness has worn off and we fail to remember what life was like before we knew Christ. And yet, Christians who walk with Jesus daily are no longer in the majority these days. Most people do not wake up on Sunday morning, for example, and automatically organize their day to attend church to worship God.

Yet just because people are not moving toward God, doesn’t mean God is not far away from each of them.

To emphasize that God was not far away, Paul quotes two Greek poets by saying, “In Him we live and move and have our being”

As even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed His offspring.”

Again, we notice that Paul didn’t use Scripture to make his point, but used the very literature his listeners would relate to.

Paul could use this literature as a bridge between his pagan audience and God, because what had been stated were reflections of Biblical truths.

It’s at this point in his speech that Paul uses more of their thinking to make them accountable to what they are thinking and believing, by using the “If, Then” statement, which they would have been familiar.

If we are His offspring, then we are responsible for right ideas about God, and therefore must reject wrong ideas, such as the Divine Nature is like gold, silver or stone.

So much for idols, especially those to the unknown god.

Paul had acknowledged their openness to finding the true God. Now that Paul had established where God started, and how we are related to God, Paul told them how to get back into relationship with God, they needed to repent.

Because God is not only the creator of all things, He is also the judge. It is here in his speech that Paul introduced Jesus. Not by name, but by what his role had been in assuring we can be in the resurrection of the dead.

The response of those listening to Paul that day should not surprise us. As soon as Paul started talking about the resurrection of the dead, we read that some mocked him. That would have been those who did not believe in death, but a a return in another time in another place. There were those who hadn’t completely made up their minds, and needed to hear more, and there were those who believed. Sounds like a parable Jesus once told about the seed that fell on different grounds and how they grew.

Paul’s message to those at the Areopagus encourages me to keep things fresh between God and myself, and to keep looking for bridges between what I believe and what I see around me.

Did you notice that in this particular address, Paul doesn’t use any Scripture? He doesn’t site any jargon that only he and his disciples would have known? Instead, he lives his life with one basic principle,

God is not far away. He can be found anywhere. It is up to us to look for Him. And when we find Him, we use the things of the day, to connect those who don’t know Him, to an understanding of who God really is.

Nowhere in this speech, does Paul water down the gospel.

Even when he quotes the poets of the day, he does so using quotes that contain Biblical principles. Paul would have not been as effective had he quoted the Old Testament or recited the history of Israel in order to explain the gospel. Sometimes the best starting point may be natural theology, human experience, poetry or music.

Remember, God has Not Been Far Away, since the beginning of time. The Gospel is not embedded in our cultural twentieth century concept of what Christianity should look like. The gospel transcends barriers and so should we.

This week, let’s take time to look for God’s presence where we may least expect to see it. The kingdom is at hand. God is ready to reveal Himself through whatever it takes, for his creation to see Him and believe. It may mean we may not be able to do things or say things exactly like we have always do ne it. Like Paul, we may have to say things in a way that I others will understand better. So let’s keep vigilant and ready to see the connections that can make the difference between entering the kingdom of heaven, or not.

Let’s pray.