Call to Worship
Read Acts 17:16-34

The Athenians were startled by Paul’s speech. I wonder if we still have the capacity to be startled by the message of the gospel? Can we be amazed and intrigued by the claims of Paul’s message so much so that we want to know more about it? Or has the message that Paul preached on Mars Hill become rather commonplace to us? Does it simply sound like so much church-talk?

This morning, I think it is right that we begin our worship with these words and consider this message that so moved the Athenians. It moved them all to wonder. It moved a few to sneers and rejection, but it moved other to belief and conversion! Consider what we have just heard and what we claim to believe . . .

  1. There is one God who made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth

  2. God takes Care of us. We do not take care of him as if we bring him what he needs. He gives us life and breath and he satisfies our every need!

  3. God has a purpose. His purpose is that all people should seek him find him. For we live, move and have our being in God!

  4. God intends to redeem all things and he will judge the world with justice. The one who will judge is Jesus Christ, appointed by God to judge because God raised him from the dead.

And we are here today in the presence of a living God who is near us! He is here – not far away!
And we are here today in the presence of a living Lord and Savior. He is not dead! He lives and he is with us!
And we are here today filled with the Spirit of our Creator and Lord in whom we live, move, and have our being!

How could we think this is commonplace? Let us continue to affirm this startling good news as we stand and sing what we believe. There is a God and He is Alive!


Scenes of culture shock:
Surely we have all heard of culture shock. Maybe some of you have experienced it. It describes the feelings and reactions that one has when one is suddenly thrust into an unknown and unfamiliar culture.

  1. Paul is disturbed by the culture of Athens –
    Paul is experiencing a certain amount of culture shock while he is in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. He is in a land that isn’t at all like his homeland. Sure there was diversity and a variety of languages in Tarsus and Judea, and Paul himself had been to many different locations – but this is Athens. If Jerusalem was the center of Judeo-Christian culture, then Athens was the center of Gentile-pagan culture – even more so than Rome.
    As Paul walks the streets of Athens he notices idols to pagan Gods everywhere. And not only are the signs of idolatry everywhere but also immorality. Some of these idols are pornographic and some of them depict certain body parts best kept private – but they are on public display in Athens. It’s a different culture. This is culture shock.
    So Paul goes to the synagogue – perhaps to get a little taste of home but also to share the message that is the reason for his mission. Paul is shocked, but he’s no prude; notice that he even overcomes his culture shock by preaching in the public square right alongside the philosophers of Athens. He moves out rather than withdraws ...

  2. The Athenians are startled by Paul’s message
    And now there’s a bit of reverse culture shock. Paul stands out as something unusual in this culture. There’s something very unique in what Paul is saying. When Paul talks about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection the people are amazed. This is something new. This is news. So, he is invited rather eagerly to the Council of Philosophers at Mars Hill (The Areopagus). They want to know more. There is inquiry. They are asking questions.

  3. Are we startled by the good news?
    Paul preaches a God that created us and rules in his creation.
    Paul preaches a God that we cannot manage or contain. A God whom we turn to with our needs, but not a God who has needs that we can meet.
    Paul preaches a God that has a purpose and he will judge all creation according to that purpose. He has made his purpose known in Jesus Christ.
    Paul preaches a Savior, Lord, and Judge – Jesus Christ who is God revealed and risen from the dead. Resurrection! How shocking and unnatural.

    Now how can we not be amazed and startled by such mysteries? Paul never seems to have lost the wonder. It never became commonplace or routine for him. He witnessed the risen Jesus – resurrection from the dead is not “natural” or “logical.” It introduces a new hope into a hopeless world. It opens up a closed universe.

    There’s a connection between Paul’s culture shock in Athens and the shocking news his preaches. If we are not shocked and amazed by the good news, then we probably will not be shocked by the idolatry and immorality of our culture.

    Vice versa, if we aren’t shocked by the idolatry and immorality in our Athenian America then we probably aren’t shocked and amazed by the presence of God and the mystery of the resurrection.

    Do we live move breathe and have our being in our culture – or in God? A God who has made himself known to us, but one who is still so Unknown to so many ... even in our America, and maybe even to some of us ...

  4. Will we represent the Unknown God to our culture?
    If we cannot recover the scandal and shock of the message about Jesus Christ then we won’t recognize or understand the sort of questions that our culture is asking. Our culture is becoming more diverse and pluralistic. Old standards and commonly held beliefs that we once all assumed are crumbling. But there is a renewed quest for answers. Our culture is more spiritual than ever before. Like the Athenians our culture is very religious, even if they are setting up temples to Unknown Gods.

    Yes, our culture is becoming increasingly immoral. Yes, we are becoming religious in every way, but before we criticize the culture around us and poke fun at their ridiculous idols and their vain quests for God and spiritual fulfillment, let’s seriously ask why no one wants to include the church in the quest. Why doesn’t Oprah want to have a religious discussion, but a spiritual discussion is okay? Why does George Lucas want young people to have belief in God but not a religious system (i.e. church). Why is there a return to spirituality on the college campus but a decline in mainstream church attendance?
    The church isn’t trusted and isn’t regarded as the place where one will find spirituality. It is viewed as a religious institution and not a place of mystery. Before you react defensively let’s ask: Why is that?

    Maybe it is because we have withdrawn ourselves. . . Too often we want to find a safe harbor in our land and hide out there. We assume that our mission is to circle the wagons and protect the women and children from savages. But that’s never the mission in Scripture. We are never commanded to circle up or settle in to safe harbor. We are sent. A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for. Who will risk being disturbed and annoyed by the idolatrous displays of our culture so we can find the opportunity to name the unknown God.

    Maybe it is because we have boiled down the raw mystery and awe of the gospel and we are serving people the stain in the bottom of the cup. Hungry people aren’t concerned with how neatly we’ve typed our menu, or how pretty we’ve laid out our silverware and napkins. They want something to sustain them.

    Before we criticize, let’s notice that the people of our culture are seeking. (Maybe even more so than those of us who take God’s truth for granted.) Religion and spirituality are on the rise. We see it in movies. We see it in the news. We see it in music and politics. Does this mean that all of it is correct? Does this mean it is all good? Well no. But how should we respond? We can withdraw into our little Christian safe haven, we can condemn the culture for its ignorance and immorality, or we can do like Paul and take the opportunity to speak – I see that you happen to be quite religious! And if people are going to sneer and send us away – let it be because of the amazing news and mystery of our Almighty God and our Risen Savior. Better they should reject us for the startling truth than for our lockstep logic.

    Can we find a point of connection? Can we find an opportunity to represent the unknown God that our culture is looking for?

    Let’s not be cowards or prudes. Some will sneer, but some will want to hear more. Dionysius, Damaris, and a few others are waiting for us to introduce them to the Unknown God ...

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 21 August 2005

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