“From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever felt like you were searching for God? Maybe that’s too on the nose right out of the gate, especially if you’re not really much of a Jesus person. Have you ever felt like you were searching for something in life? Perhaps you were simply looking for more out of life. All people everywhere and in all times have a built-in awareness that there is more to life than our normal get-up-go-to-work-go-home-to-bed-and-do-it-again-the-next-day routine. But we don’t always have a clear sense of what this more should be. This morning, with the help of Paul’s attempt to teach a group of Greek intellectuals this same idea, let’s talk about what this more might be for you.
Acts 17 is one of Paul’s best known and studied sermons. The story itself is a fascinating one. Paul had been run out of Thessalonica when his Jewish opponents in the city whipped up a mob to go after him since they couldn’t out argue him. (Interestingly, the use of mob violence is always an indication of the moral and intellectual failure of the side the mob represents to offer up cogent arguments in favor of their preferred outcome. That’s not to say there aren’t good arguments in their favor, they have simply failed on the intellectual task of making them and the moral task of not resorting to violence to achieve a goal if at all possible.) The result was that Paul fled to the next town up the road, Berea. He was received well by the Bereans, but eventually his opponents in Thessalonica figured out where he had gone and chased him down there too.
Finally, Paul hit the road and got out of their effective radius of influence. This put him in the city of Athens. Paul had not planned to go to Athens initially. Sometimes God can use occasions when things seem to go disastrously wrong like we talked about on Tuesday. Paul learned to see things through lens he was commending by example to the Philippian believers by experience. But even though he hadn’t planned to go to Athens, Paul set about doing the work he did wherever he went while he was there. He headed for the synagogue and started proclaiming the Gospel. This presentation caught the attention of some of the intellectuals of the city who reported their hearing of this new teaching to their fellows at the Areopagus, and the group extended an invitation for Paul to come and make his presentation at their next meeting. Paul naturally accepts and delivers what is, again, one of his most celebrated sermons.
The sermon is remarkable in a number of respects, but what stands out the most to me are two things. First, even though the message is soaked in ideas that are firmly rooted in the Scriptures, Paul does not quote Scripture a single time. Not once. Second, Paul makes no mention of Jesus at all and references God in only very generic terms. Paul understood his audience and shaped his message accordingly. In doing so, he completely obliterates some of the most common excuses we sometimes make for why we don’t share the Gospel. I don’t have a Bible. I don’t have any Scripture memorized. What if they don’t like my talking about Jesus?
In any event, where Paul starts is with his audience’s overwhelming religiosity. The people of Athens were incredibly religious. And they were cosmopolitan in their worship. They were remarkably like modern people in this regard. They didn’t want to turn any god down, so they worshiped them all. Whatever or whoever you wanted to worship was just fine so long as you didn’t start thinking your god was better than anyone else’s god. They even had an altar in the city labeled, “To an Unknown God,” just in case they missed one. This was where Paul found his opening. He essentially said, “You worship all of these gods you know as well as this God you don’t. Let me tell you more about this God you don’t know.”
He describes to them a God who is above all the gods. He is the Lord of all creation. Unlike all the rest of their gods who were limited in power and scope, or were responsible for a single part of creation, Paul’s God made it all. He created the land and the sea and the people. In fact, He is the source of life for all life. And He is not bound by the ways they normally understood gods to operate. No single god claimed all people as his own. But this God did. He made every single person on the face of the earth, put them where they were, and determined the length of their days.
Now, they would have naturally been thinking about this kind of super powerful God as hard to find. Perhaps if you went on an epic journey, you could discover who He was. But that wasn’t the God Paul was describing to them. This God is not hidden. He wants to be found. In fact, He put all the people on earth where they are in hopes that He would be found. “He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him.” He designed the world for discovery, and specifically the discovery of Himself. All people everywhere are able to find this God. And the reason for this is simple: He is not far from each one of us.
God is closer than you think. I don’t mean that in some sort of a New Age or pantheistic sense. I mean that just as I say it. God is closer than you think. The God who created all we see and don’t with His words, the God who is sovereign over all of creation, who is limitless in power and knowledge, is also close at hand. He wants to be found. He wants to be found by you. He made the world so that you can find Him. He is patient and humble. He never forces Himself. He is gentle and kind. That sense you have that there is more to life than what you are living every single day is right on the money. There is. And God is waiting to introduce you to it when you are willing to embrace Him for who He is. If you want to think about it this way, you are living in a love story. It is the greatest love story ever told. Everything has been building toward the climax of your turning around to discover the one who loves you most and best has been standing there the whole time, waiting for you to see Him. Everything – even the hard things – have been opportunities for you to experience all that He has to give. But the real beauty of this love story is that when you finally embrace Him, the credits don’t roll. That’s simply the beginning of the next story which is even greater than the one that came before it. All you have to do is embrace Him with your life. I hope that you will.