16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ r As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council.
A place where a ton of ideas about God and religion swirl around every day. A place where idols are all over the place. A place where some people spend a lot of time browsing through the latest ideas and popular trends. A place where disputes among the “smart” people rage regularly. A place where ones preaching about Jesus can get many differing reactions. A place where people want to know what things mean. Do you know what place I’m talking about? Isn’t it obvious? The place is Athens back in the day of the Apostle Paul.
But doesn’t it also sound like it could be another place at another time? Doesn’t it sound like this could be right near your home, your work, your school. Absolutely! This plays out on Facebook and Twitter every day. It happens at your family get togethers, the grocery store, the weekend games, the mall, and so many others. This kind of thing is what you and I deal with every day here in 2018.
But this world will make it easy and even demand you to ignore it. I was on the phone this week for over an hour trying to get an issue with my Microsoft Office 365 fixed. The man on the other line was from India, literally he was talking with me at 11pm from the country of India, in some city I cannot pronounce that has over 12 million people. His name was Srinivasan (and yes, it took me an embarrassing amount of attempt to get that right). There was plenty of down time during our conversation because he was on the remote access to my computer uninstalling things and reinstalling others to make sure my Office 365 worked properly. So, I was nosy and asked him a lot of personal questions, sports, food, schooling, relationship status – all the basics. But when I got to religion Srinivasan politely answered my question but then told me that religion and politics are not allowed for these calls.
And that has a way of trickling down into our day to day lives, doesn’t it? If you want to keep your friends, family, coworkers and everybody else happy, then these two highly-debated topics should come up seldom and when they do come up, try to be quick, discrete and considerate. However, to be safe you should still avoid them at all costs.
If you avoid the topic of religion in your conversations with people that you care about and know well, you can probably guess what will happen in your conversations with people who you don’t know very well or at all. You won’t be thinking of God’s Word, faith, or church much in those conversations either. So, if you have regularly avoided the topics of religion, spiritual life, Jesus, and the Bible both with the people you know and those you don’t know in the past, what do you expect will happen now and in the future? Are you able to just switch it on?
I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. Think of a kid who played soccer in middle school but then gives it up besides watching it here and there until he’s 33 and his kids want to learn. He might be able to show some simple things like where to kick the ball on your foot and how to pass, but he won’t have much skill or experience. I found this out first hand when we had our Bible soccer camp this past summer. Sure I can kick a ball, but it might not go where I want it to all the time. And I didn’t have any kind of footwork or dribbling or receiving skills. I could play with the kids, but with soccer players my own age I wouldn’t be able to do much at all.
If that’s the way you are going to treat evangelism and sharing the good news of Jesus with others, then don’t expect to be all that comfortable talking about Jesus, about what he has done for you or about what the Bible says on key issues. If your faith in Jesus is simply a Sunday thing, then what about the rest of the week? How can you carry out God’s Great Commission for believers to go and make disciples, if you aren’t thinking and talking about Jesus and what he has done regularly?
I’ve done it. I’ve skipped the chance to talk about my Savior. I think it’s safe to assume that we all have. Whether it was nerves, worry, doubt, fear, lack of skill, lack of knowledge, lack of love, it doesn’t matter. It was wrong.
But I have a feeling that God might give you another chance. That coworker that complains too much might just be at it again on Monday. That classmate who looks sad and alone will still be at school. Your waitress if you go out this week might be new in town and trying to figure it all out. You might run into a cousin who’s got some difficulties and stress building up. The neighbor who is a little annoying might come by. Someone who comes for our Trunk-or-Treat event might have some questions. The chatty dad at swim lessons might pick the seat next to you. You get the point. There are and will continue to be people around you who are just like the people at the Areopagus or the lady at the well.
It’s not like you have to come out and tell every single person that you run across in a day that Jesus is their Savior from sin and hell. You could, God bless you, you could. But I think it’s good to remember who you are when you are out and about with people. You are a Paul. You are an Ezekiel. You are a person who, at one point in life whether it was for a couple of days or decades, was against God. Sin and unbelief are a real part of your past. You were on the natural born path to hell, but God stepped in to remove your sin through faith in Jesus. Jesus changed your heart with the power of the gospel in Word and Sacrament. You were baptized, brought to faith, connected to Jesus and his eternal gift of life. You were adopted by God into his family. The Holy Spirit took up residence in your heart. You were purchased by Jesus. Faith took root and gave you a new home in heaven and a new outlook in this life.
When God did this for you with the power of the gospel, the faith he planted was not a 1/7 kind of faith. What I mean is, faith was not planted in your heart so that you could think about it, talk about it, treasure it, confess it, share it only on Sundays. It was planted there for 7 out of 7 days. The God-given gift of faith is in your heart to be there for your entire life.
And that faith that God gave you is not the selfish type. It’s not timid and lazy. It’s not nervous and weak. The same power of the gospel that changed your heart is at work to make you look and talk to others the way God looks and talks to you.
So how do you navigate in an environment where there are a ton of ideas about God and religion swirling around? How can you boldly speak up about Jesus where idols are all over the place? How can you bring up spiritual matters when they seem to get many differing reactions?
Look what Paul does. (quote a couple things from 22-31)
Paul is a Christian who walks through a city with Christian eyes, seeing that there are obviously some things that aren’t quite in line with God. And yet, he doesn’t bash their superstitions and idolatry but uses them as a launching pad into evangelism. He doesn’t say, “Well, you have your beliefs and I have mine.” No, he uses their popular religious views, the words from their own poets, and the cultural philosophies to point to the truth of God.
Paul saw how people were creating their own ideas of God, distorting and distilling the Lord of heaven and earth down to the size their brains could handle. Instead of walking away from it, Paul uses a very logical progression. It’s almost like he is saying, “If God is bigger than us and hard to figure out, then why would it work for us to turn God into something smaller than us that we can make? That doesn’t make sense. But what does make sense is that the God of everything wants people to believe in him. And he even rose from the dead to prove how powerful, and how much he cares about you.” Paul uses simple law that points out idolatry as sin. Paul uses simple gospel that points to Jesus power over death for us. He goes from what is common to us to describe what is unique about God.
And he doesn’t worry about the results. Sure, some sneered at him, but others were interested. And Paul didn’t let that stop him, because the power of God’s good news works. We can’t control where and when – that’s up to God – but we can control our use of it.
Brothers and sisters, you can do the very same thing with the Christian eyes, heart, and life that God has given you. You can see things from the spiritual, eternal perspective. You can use the love God has placed in your heart that is willing to help others. You can use the Word God has given you in the Bible regularly. You can speak to others using simple every day examples to turn conversations to what matters most.
So when the weather comes up, you can talk about the creator of the world and all its weather. When negative news comes up again, you can bring up the one who gets rid of the negativity of sin and death. When someone is going through a rough patch, you can identify with that, right? And then talk about the one who brings peace and joy. When a storm rages and destroys some part of the country, you can talk about the only shelter you have from the storms. When your sports team isn’t doing that great, you can talk about the victory Jesus has won. And on and on. Jesus is right there in any conversation because he is right there in your heart.
It doesn’t take a genius to do this. Paul was no philosopher. He had the gospel and he had God’s promise. That’s what you have, too. Amen.