Dear Hope Family,
In Acts 17, this week’s sermon passage, the apostle Paul journeys as far as the city of Athens, and while he awaits the arrival of Silas and Timothy from Berea, he is overwhelmed by the innumerable temples, shrines, altars, and statues blanketing the city. One ancient writer described Athens as “one great altar, one great sacrifice,” while another quipped that it was easier to find a god there than a man. Idols were everywhere. Athens was swamped with idols.
What is deeply endearing about Paul’s experience with and reaction to the in-his-face religiosity and offensive superstition is that he does not lash out in ridicule, nor does he walk away in exasperated judgment, thereby consigning the Athenians to their never-ceasing treadmill of appeasing thousands of gods, even one who had no explicit identity (“to the unknown god”). Rather, he enters in. He engages. He makes a crucial point of contact instead of lobbing critique after critique upon them.
He commends their searching, their inarticulate and uninformed longings. Rather than wag his finger shamefully at them, he points his finger to the living God, who alone is the known and knowable God, who alone is the one able to make sense out of this life and give coherence to the world, and who alone can fulfill the longings and desires of their hearts that he created for them to enjoy. He connects their longing to know the God who has fully revealed himself in the person and work of Christ so that we can know him.
Paul’s own, personal encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus must have fueled his compassion and engagement of the Athenians. Jesus met Paul when he was fervent and aggressive in his devotion to the wrong god, an idol of tradition, history, and power. Jesus revealed himself to Paul with an invitation to personal reconciliation and relationship. Jesus put the true name to the god that Paul thought he knew so that Paul could know him truly. Jesus fulfilled the longing of Paul’s heart.
Corporate worship affords us the opportunity to be honest about our longings, to be honest about the pseudo-gods we turn to in order to take the edge off our unmet longings. And corporate worship affords us the opportunity to have God meet us where we are – not with shameful critiques and exasperated judgments – but with a gracious finger pointing us to the Risen Jesus in whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled and through whom our longings find their proper home.
Come join the crowd this Sunday. Bring your longings with you. Let’s attend to the compassionate God who draws us yet again and graciously gives us himself – the deepest desire underneath all of our other desires.
Grace and peace,