Summer Sermon Series: Acts 17:16-32

Full Text: 

What disgusts you? 

I remember when I was in 4th grade, some of the naughty boys hit a phase where they would spit all the time—sometimes even threaten to spit at innocent girl (though the threats were always empty).  I thought it was the most repulsive thing.  I don’t know why.  Even to this day, I’m still grossed out. 

We all have things that disgust us.  Whether it’s a food, or one of God’s less lovely creatures, or something else.  There are things that make us want to gag or tear our eyes out.  For the first humans, this enabled survival.  Disgust prevented them from eating or touching things that would harm them.  The down side to disgust, is sometimes we transfer it to people.  If we’re honest, there are people that trigger that disgust response in us.  The problems arise when we don’t use the rest of our brain to realize that disgust isn’t a loving response for a fellow human being. 

In our story today, Paul’s disgust response gets triggered to the max.  We find Paul in Athens this morning.  Athens proved a difficult place for this man who grew up as the most observant of Jews.  Back in Bible days, God’s people learned to be disgusted by idols.  Statues of other gods were abominations in Paul’s eyes. 

Just to clarify, most ancient people didn’t believe that the statues themselves were gods, but these statues represented other gods.  People often believed in each other’s gods.  They might have one god that they favored, but people generally believed that everyone else’s god existed.  As people came in contact with other cultures, they often tried on these other gods. If one god was good, more might be better.  Oftentimes if one group of people was conquered by another, it was believed that the conquers’ god defeated the god of the people who were conquered.  It was a whole different mindset that’s hard for us to imagine today. 

Throughout Israel’s history, they were tempted and often took on this ancient mindset and worshiped other gods along with YHWH.  So, Paul, having been the strictest of the strict Pharisees, learned to be repulsed by these statues of other gods.  Athens was full of them.  Athens was a great city of learning and deep thinkers.  At this point however, they were in decline.  They were kind of grasping at straws in the way they’d latch onto any new idea or theology.  Imagine all kinds of little pop-up alters to any and every god of the day.  I imagine they made Paul physically sick.  I wonder if preaching in Athens was even harder for Paul than all the times his teaching landed him in jail or beaten. 

And yet Paul somehow managed to curb his gag-reflex and use the rest of his brain to think through how to tell the story of Jesus in this land of idols. 

Even though Paul can’t help but be judgmental about these people, I give him credit for taking time to observe his surroundings.  Even though it pained him, he stopped to examine all those idols. 

Even though people seemed more interested in debating and arguing, he dared to enter conversations that may not lead anywhere.  Even though it would have been much easier to judge, Paul took the time to try to understand. 

Paul managed to find an alter to an “unknown god,” and he knew enough about Greek writings of the day so he could quote some well-fitting poetry to help tell this story of Jesus.  He met the Athenians where they were at, rather than demand that they smash all their idols and be like him.  Paul told the story of Jesus using their culture, and their images, and their language.  Sure, some of his judgement slipped in there, but he really worked to speak in a way that people could hear the message he had to share.  It didn’t work for everyone, but it worked for some. 

We might have different disgust triggers than Paul, but we still have them.  We have buttons that set us off, and people we wrinkle our noses at.  Too often we are quick to judge and slow to empathy, and we don’t always handle these situations as well as Paul did.  One of these situations haunts me to this day. 

When I was in college, I was part of a student-led Christian fellowship group.  We ran the full spectrum of denominations from mainline to evangelical, catholic to non-denominational, Baptist to Wisconsin synod.  My freshman year, it was pretty small.  My sophomore year, we grew.  We even started a praise band.  We started with a couple singers and guitars.  Then we added some drums.   We couldn’t ever manage to find a bass.  It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it would have been nice. 

About half way through the year, one of my music major friends heard that we needed a bass player.  He happened to play bass and said he’d be willing to help us out.  The only problem was he wasn’t part of the group.  I saw it as an opportunity for outreach.  Music can be a great way to reach people.  Music touches our souls in ways words just can’t.  If my friend had a positive experience with the group, who knew what might happen?  

The leadership team I was part of was suspicious of him.  They didn’t know what he believed.  They weren't sure about his character.  They weren’t sure he was fit to lead the praise music.  Our different backgrounds and perspectives finally collided.  I and another leader reluctantly let the other leaders talk us into inviting him to have a conversation with us. 

The “conversation” quickly turned into debate and then into interrogation.  My fellow leaders were unwilling to meet my friend where he was at, and instead demanded he believe in exactly the way they did.  No doubts.  No questions.  Only unwavering faith would be accepted.  My friend walked out and slammed the door.  I left that meeting and wept.  Had I been a braver soul, I might have left that group out of protest, but I felt the need to persist with that group.  We did not meet my friend where he was at.  We did not take the time to understand his point of view.  Personal preferences got in the way of the gospel. 

 There are countless ways people discover that force beyond ourselves in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  We have no idea how the Holy Spirit is at work in others.  We can never fully know what another person has gone through, or where they are coming from. 

 

We do know that we have a God who meets us where we are at.  Literally, God came down in human form to meet us where we were at.  Jesus went to where people were, and he went to all the people—rich, poor, sick, well, men, women, young, old, foreigners, enemies… you name it.  And he simply did things like heal them, and eat with them, and love them.  He took time to see them, and know them, and care.  And this is what we are called to do with all people—even the people that we disagree with, even the people who might disgust us.  We are called to love others as Jesus loved us.