Paula Northwood February 9, 2020
Scripture Acts 17:16–28
Do you have an idea how many light switches there are in this church? I think there may be more than 250. The chapel alone has 18. In my time at Plymouth, I have groped in the dark often trying to find a switch because they are not located in the same place in a room. Some are in the hallway, some hidden around corners in the least intuitive place possible. Others go on automatically. None of them go on by clapping your hands! With our youth over the years, I have attended many lock-ins and played Sardines so I have had to find the light switches and believe me, I have groped in the dark for light switches sometimes to the point of frustration.
The title of the sermon is Groping for God. If you listened closely to the text when Paul is preaching to the Athenians, he poses the question that perhaps they grope for God. Now, Beth Faeth was supposed to be preaching this morning and she chose that title. Beth, as you have heard, has pneumonia and we wish her well. Because of her, I have been thinking a lot about “groping” in the last two days.
The word “groping” usually brings up an image of something that happens in the back seat of a car or inappropriate sexual behavior. But the first definition according to the Webster dictionary is “to feel blindly or uncertainly in search.” Then it gives the example of a light switch. When you grope for something, you try to get a grip on it. For example, if you drop your flashlight in a dark cave, you might grope around for it. But beware of spiders or snakes or other squishy things!
The text that we are about to examine is unique in that it is the only complete synopsis of one of Paul’s sermons to a non-Jewish audience. In chapter 13, we have an example of Paul’s sermon delivered to the Jews in the synagogue at Antioch. But here, Paul is preaching to the Gentiles, and he’s quite creative.
Northwest of the city of Athens is a small hill covered in stone seats. Maybe some of you have been there. This area was once used as a forum for the rulers of Athens to hold trials, debate and discuss important matters. This location was called Areopagus, a combination of the Greek words for “god of war” and “stone”: the Areopagus is literally “Ares’ Rock.” The equivalent to the Greek god of war Ares in Roman mythology is Mars. By the time of Paul and the early Christian church, this location was under Roman control, so the spot was known as Mars Hill.
The purpose of the Athenian Areopagus was similar to that of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Both were groups of respected local men charged with investigating spiritual or philosophical ideas. Both groups were composed of distinct sects holding contrary beliefs in certain areas. Both were considered “conservative” in the sense of mostly defending the status quo. Both were used somewhat like a court to settle disputes and judge certain cases. Unlike the Sanhedrin, however, the Athenian Areopagus was primarily interested in defending either Greek or Roman concepts of the gods.
Paul begins his sermon by finding a point of connection between the Athenians’ faith and his own. He noted that he had seen an altar “to an unknown God.” Paul did not criticize this altar but saw in it an opportunity to connect the God he proclaimed to a god they already admitted might exist.
He begins with an affirmation of the people: “I see that you are very religious.” I take this as Paul’s positive way of setting up the “case” for his message, rather than criticizing Athenians for their beliefs. It’s a great strategy.
Paul then affirmed something central to Judaism and Christianity and all religions: God is the Creator of all things. The audience would have agreed with this assertion as well. Paul went on to note that the entire human race derives its existence from God, and that God “gives life, breath, and everything else” to us. Again, Paul’s listeners would have nodded their heads in agreement. At this point everything Paul said was consistent with similar conceptions of God held by other Greek and Roman philosophers.
Then Paul noted, “God made the nations so they would seek God, perhaps even grope for God.” But here is the big moment, the new insight: This unknown God isn’t far away from any of us. This unknown and mysterious God hopes to be found. And this God is very, very near, not just up in the clouds. Paul continues, this mysterious God is revealed to us in the life of a man named Jesus who was resurrected and is quite near, as near as the air we breathe. The pagan gods might live on Mount Olympus, but the unknown God was as near as our breath, as close as a heartbeat.
Then Paul returns to something familiar. He offers two quotations from Greek poets whom the audience would know, poets Paul no doubt had studied: “In God we live, move and exist” and “We are God’s offspring.” The first quotation came from the Greek poet Epimenides, who died in the sixth century BCE, and the second quotation from the Greek poet Aratus, who died in 240 BCE. Once more, Paul was making the case for his faith by anchoring its truths in things the Athenian philosophers already believed and appreciated. Paul puts forth the idea that “we are God’s offspring,” that all human beings are children of the one true God, whether they acknowledge this or not. “In God we live, move and exist” points to the concept that we as human beings are dependent upon God, that God is the source of life and all that sustains it.
Only after gaining strong agreement from the audience so far, Paul offers a brief and gentle critique of the Athenians’ worship of deities made of gold, silver, and stone. He might have asked a question: How do these gods, made of gold, silver and stone, manifest themselves in your lives?
It’s curious to note that the quotations from Aratus and Epimenides originally referred to Zeus. Paul’s reference to them might have been confusing to the listeners. What God is he talking about? Paul is trying to convince the audience that the greatest or highest god is not Zeus but the “unknown” God. And that he, Paul, has had an experience with this God. He knew this ineffable, unknown God!
Paul begins to talk about incarnation, that with the coming of Jesus, God sought to reveal more of God’s self to humanity. Now they likely never heard of Jesus. This might have been a new story. Unfortunately, I think there is something missing from Paul’s sermon because if you read further in the chapter Paul jumps to inviting them to repent.
Instead, I think he shared his life-changing experience on the road to Damascus where he experiences the living Christ. He may have shared that he once persecuted the followers of Jesus but now, his life had changed so much he can’t help sharing it with others. Paul becomes the Billy Graham of this new religion called Christianity. Paul invited those who are groping in the dark for a life of meaning to change their hearts and lives. He invites them to “repent.” We get hung up on the word “repent” and think it pejorative but the Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “to think differently,” that is, to change one’s mind to the point that it changes your heart and behavior.
Metanoia is a great word. It’s like turning on the light switch in a dark room and finally seeing clearly why we are here.
Is the world much different than in Paul’s day? In our time and place, the God we love and seek is still largely unknown to the crowds we meet on the Mars Hills of our lives, at the town meeting or the Presidential caucus or the coffee shop. And each of us gather this morning for different reasons now, likely not to be part of a thriving, mainstream institution, but because we too are questioning, seeking, groping for a sense of purpose and meaning.
We sense that there is more to life than we can see, something beyond the materially obvious, some quality of hope and love that will make the difference even in the dark. In that groping, we make gods of other things. I don’t need to name them; you know what they are. We hope if we grope long enough, we will find something. We grope and we do find. We find there is a God that can be known, whose love moves us into new life together as a church, united. God is here! As close as our breath and as real as our heartbeats.
We grope and we find that what we need is in our hearts. We find there is a God, luminous, whose light shines even as the world gropes aimlessly in the darkness. Sometimes we faithful church people are simply part of that groping. And sometimes, like today, we manage to find the switch, and, by the grace of God, turn on the light.
This world needs our light. With all that is happening in our world, it’s easy to get discouraged. But because the spirit of God lives in each one of us, let’s have the intelligence, the optimism, the creativity, the courage to turn on the light! May it be so. Amen.