I have this probably mistaken assumption that all Presbyterians plan their day around watching the game show “Jeopardy” as Claire and I do. But just in case I am wrong, here is how the game works. Alex Trebek is the host and there are three contestants. There are six categories on the board, with five clues under each category, ranging in value from $200-$1000 in the first round and $400-$2000 in the second round. The clues are the answer, and the contestant must answer in the form of a question.
In my sermon title I have set up the category of “Gods.” So the first contestant might say, “Alex, I’d like to start with Gods for $200.” Alex would read the answer as it is revealed, “The Roman god of the sun.” The first contestant to push the buzzer gets to try to answer. The right answer is “Who is Apollo?”
Of course one recent contestant named Arthur Chu antagonized people around the globe by jumping all over the board with his selections instead of going through categories in an orderly fashion. He probably would have started, “Alex, I’d like Gods for $1000.” The clue: “The Egyptian god of the afterlife.” The answer: “Who is Anubis?”
“Alex, I’d like Gods for $400.” “The Greek god of the sea.” Answer: “Who is Poseidon?” “Alex, I’d like Gods for $600.” The clue: “The God worshiped in Athens in case there was anything not covered by all the other gods.” The answer: “Who is the unknown God?”
Jeopardy is known as the ultimate trivia show, and here I am trivializing the concept of gods. Our temptation when we hear today’s passage about Paul’s visit to Athens is to quickly write it off as trivial and irrelevant, as a description of a superstitious society with these antiquated ideas of deities who were responsible for different aspects of life. I hope to show you this passage has much more value for us than that.
The consolidation of the world into the Roman Empire which was underway during Paul’s life had its origin with Alexander the Great’s meteoric conquest of much of the known world to establish a Greek Empire about 400 years earlier. Alexander’s goal was not just to conquer the world but to win its hearts and minds. He wanted everyone to come to love and embrace the Greek language, Greek architecture and art, Greek culture, Greek philosophy, Greek religion. This was so successful that during Paul’s time, the height of the Roman Empire, the language of the New Testament is Greek and Paul frequently uses Greek philosophical ideas and concepts in his writings.
As you know, Paul was a big traveler. I can imagine that the two places at the top of his bucket list were Rome and Athens. Rome was the heart and the fist of the Empire, Athens was the brain and the soul. Paul arrives in Athens on a three game losing streak. He has been run out of town from the last three places he had visited: Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea.
I wonder what his expectations were as he approached Athens. Was his confidence shaken? Did he assume that in a cosmopolitan, learned city like Athens he would receive a better hearing and be treated with more respect? We don’t know. We just know that he arrived in Athens without either of his co-evangelists, Timothy or Silas, who stayed behind in Beroea and were not able to rejoin him until he had moved on to Corinth.
When Paul arrived in Athens he was distressed to find that the city was filled with idols. I guess in the same way we ride through a downtown area and see a church on every corner, Paul saw a place for worshiping various gods on every corner. There was even a curious altar which had the inscription: “To an unknown god.”
So Paul went to work, in two arenas. He went to the synagogue to try to convince the Jews who believed in the One God that the Messiah had come in Jesus Christ. And on the streets he debated with people who held to different philosophies and worshiped various gods. Acts specifically tells us that he debated with Epicurean philosophers, who had little use for gods, and with Stoic philosophers, who had a strong theological bent developed around Zeus and the concept of the logos which is the mind of Zeus.
These folks on the street were confused by what Paul had to say, and if you have read much of Paul you can imagine that you would be pretty confused if you didn’t have some background about what he was talking about. They called him a babbler and said that he seemed to be talking about some kind of foreign gods. They wanted to hear more about it, though, so they took him off to the Aereopagus, Mars Hill, to quiz him. They said, “Your new teaching sounds very strange to us but we would like to understand it so tell us more.” Luke adds a sarcastic editorial comment here, noting that the Athenians spent their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Paul starts out on a more diplomatic note than usual, commending the people of Athens for their obvious interest in spiritual things which is manifested by the many altars and worship centers he has observed around the city. But he quickly zeroes in on the one he wants to talk about. He says that he noted one altar in particular as he walked around town, the one dedicated to “an unknown God.” He tells them that he knows this God, and wants to introduce them to him. This is the God who made heaven and earth and is Lord of all. He is not limited to one area of influence. He does not dwell in shrines which have been created by human hands. He calls everyone to repent and come to him. The world will be judged by a man God has raised from the dead.
When he got to the part about resurrection, the crowd was done. Some scoffed at the idea and left. Some were more diplomatic and politely excused themselves, saying, “Very interesting, we’d like to hear more about this sometime,” which is something you might say to a telemarketer as you hang up the phone. It was not a total loss, though. A few people believed and went with Paul, including a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris.
I get this picture of Billy Graham being invited to Harvard to be on a panel with a world renowned physicist, geneticist, philosopher, psychiatrist, and anthropologist. There might be a lot of polite conversation, but also a lot of scoffing afterwards and not much change in hearts and minds. Lots of us lock in the world view of one particular discipline and then close the door to considering much else.
I wonder, if Paul came to visit us today, what idols and altars would he find us paying most attention to? A lot of us spend a lot of time worshiping our televisions, cell phones, computers, and video games. Some of our altars are inscribed with names like Death Valley, Williams-Brice, and Bryant-Denny. Some of our worship is directed at musicians, actors, athletes. Some worship at the gym or at the mall. Some worship on Fox News, others on MSNBC, others on the stock market.
The constant, probing question all of us must face is: Where does our worship and dedication to the God of the Universe, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, fit into our worship and dedication to these other idols and altars? Is He in first place, or is He the unknown God to whom we offer token service “just in case?”