Sunday’s sermon: To An Unknown God

Text used – Acts 17:16-31

  • We humans have such an odd relationship with the unknown.
    • Certainly experience some fear/trepidation toward the unknown
      • Scariest part of any psychological thriller/horror movie = part where camera focuses in on the face of the whoever’s acting in the scene → hear the scary/suspenseful music + see the dawning horror on the person’s face → But we can’t actually see what they’re afraid of … and those few drawn out moments of not being able to see is worse than anything else.
      • Human’s innate fear of the dark → story of having to empty the food scraps bucket as a kid
      • Fear that comes with any the unknown of medical/health situation as well, either for ourselves or for our loved ones → In those first moments – those moments when we first realize that something in wrong, those moments between any tests or examinations and any results, those moments right after we’ve received a diagnosis – we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the unknown.
    • And yet, as human beings, we are also fascinated by the unknown.
      • Quote from famed British author/essaying Aldous Huxley: There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
      • Fascination that has fueled every scientific breakthrough since the first humans started investigating and inventing things
        • Stunning example of that this past week: initial test images from the James Webb Space Telescope that were released this week revealed never-before-captured images of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way → what scientists call the “gentle giant” whose gravitational pull literally holds our everything together[1]
      • Fascination that extends far beyond the realm of the real into the vast reaches of the fictional → Anytime anyone imagines what could be in the unknown, a story is born.
        • Fictional representations of what could have been in the past – in the blacked-out sections of history that have been lost to time and memory → either what has been lost in the historical record or what was never a part of the historical record to begin with
          • E.g. – author Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series (books: The Evening and the Morning[2], Pillars of the Earth[3], World Without End[4], and A Column of Fire[5]) imagines the building of a great cathedral in a small English village and the life that goes on around it throughout the centuries → It’s a series based in historical fact but fueled by the unknown storylines of people’s lives.
        • And, of course, fictional representations of the future – what could be called the Greatest Unknown.

    • And truly, throughout history the Church has played a significant part in wondering about the unknown. I mean, in essence, that’s faith, right?
      • Can’t empirically prove the existence of God
      • Some of the more mystical, complex elements of theology/tradition: doctrine of the Trinity → how God can be both three persons (God, Christ, and Holy Spirit) and yet one eternal God
      • Can’t even wrap our minds around all that God is because … well, because God is God and we are not.
      • And so in that space of unknown between us and God, we find faith.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = fascinating e.g. of the interaction btwn. faith and unknowning → Paul’s experience in Athens
    • First, let’s back up for a little context. → only a few verses in between what we read last week and where our reading started this morning, but a lot of action in those verses
      • LAST WEEK: left Paul and Silas at the home of the prison guard in Philippi → Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown in prison for their acts of witnessing (and for casting out the demon that enabled the slave girl to be a fortune teller and therefore losing her owners a lot of money) → Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in the prison at midnight → earthquake broke all the chains and opened all the doors → Paul and Silas and the rest of the prisoners stayed put instead of fleeing à their actions and their faith inspired the prison guard and his entire household to be baptized and become followers of Christ
      • FROM THERE:
        • Paul and Silas journeyed to Thessalonica → experienced much resistance and persecution from Jews in that city (weren’t happy that so many Gentiles were included in this new Jesus movement) → formed a mob intent on arresting Paul and Silas (similar to the situation they experienced in Philippi) → found only the person who had been housing Paul and Silas in Thessalonica → jailed him and some other believers instead
        • Other believers help Paul and Silas to leave Thessalonica under the cover of night → Paul and Silas travel to Beroea (received a much more hospitable welcome) → But those from Thessalonica were still so outraged and worked up by what Paul and Silas had been doing there that they followed them to Beroea and began to stir up the crowds there as well!
        • Believers in Beroea sent Paul away to the coast for protection while Silas and others stayed in Beroea, panning to reunite with Paul as soon as possible
      • Verse just prior to today’s reading: Those who escorted Paul led him as far as Athens, then returned with instructions for Silas and Timothy to come to him as quickly as possible.[6]
    • As our passage for today begins, one of the scholars that I read this week summed up Paul’s situation pretty well: Here is Paul, alone in Athens, after being driven out of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea, a solitary witness, once again trying to be faithful in yet another strange and complex situation.[7] → Clearly, Paul has his feet firmly planted in the unknown.
      • Unknown city
      • Unknown situation (on his own – without traveling companions or other believers for the first time in a long time)
      • Unknown culture → At the time, Athens was a highly learned city –a hub for intellectual and cultural life within the Roman empire teaming with scholars and philosophers, historians and poets, artists and architects, and so many more. Athens was, after all, the city of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. So anybody who was anybody in the ancient Roman world – or anybody who wanted to be anybody! – went to Athens to try to make their mark on society. And suddenly, not through his own planning but through the necessity of circumstances, Paul found himself in Athens alone.
    • To his credit, didn’t seem to quell Paul’s spirit – beginning of this morning’s text: While Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day.[8]
      • Reminder of religious policy of the Roman Empire → For the most part, the Roman Empire left other religions alone so long as those adherents A) didn’t cause trouble for the Romans, and B) continued to do what the Romans required of them (pay taxes, mostly).
        • Jesus’ words from Mk: “Give to Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”[9]
      • So with this policy, a place like Athens – a melting pot of people from all over the empire who had come to study and learn and flourish, a city full of people who would have brought their own religions with them from whatever corner of the empire they hailed from … a place like Athens would have been awash in various religious centers and shrines and all manner of worship necessities. And being the fervent evangelist that he was, Paul felt the need to speak.
    • Paul goes toe-to-toe with some of the philosophers → And poor Paul. He ends up getting dragged before another court! – text: They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill.[10]
      • Mars Hill = rocky hill just outside Athens, meeting place of “the council of the Areopagites,” the court of Athens → dealt with all manner of issues: capitol crimes, legal matters, political issues, educational and religious affairs[11]
      • Yet even before this grand court in this intimidating setting, Paul speaks words of faith into the unknown! – text: Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.”[12] → And from there, Paul goes on to tell the people about this previously unknown God.
        • God who created the earth and the heavens
        • God who created humanity in all our complexities and beauty, all our foibles and our imperfections
        • God who came to save God’s most beloved creations: us
  • And there are two powerful lessons for us to take away from Paul’s witness in this moment bursting with the unknown.
    • First: Paul’s conviction, Paul’s certainty → Paul doesn’t claim to have all the answers to every question that the council could ask, but when it comes to his faith, Paul stands firm.
      • Secure in his relationship with God
      • Secure in his trust in person and work of Jesus Christ
      • Secure in his call to share his faith with any and all
      • Just because the situation all around Paul is full of the unknown doesn’t mean that Paul has to let that unknown erode his conviction. Even with all that he’s been through, even with all that he is currently facing, even with all the unknowns that his own future holds, Paul stands firm in his faith.
    • Second: Paul doesn’t throw that firmness back in the faces of those listening to him → Paul cites his own convictions and his own experiences. He makes observations – observations, not judgments – about the city of Athens and the variety that he finds there. He draws in some cultural references that will mean something to those around him without warping or manipulating the culture. In all his witnessing, Paul doesn’t condemn the people of Athens. He doesn’t accuse the people of Athens. He doesn’t use his faith to threaten the people of Athens or to shame them for their unknowing. Paul simply declares the Good News of God in Christ Jesus to them, opening up a door to perception for the people of Athens in between their known and their unknown. And, friends, our challenge is to follow that example.
      • Scholar: The challenge is to say to those around us, “We see your spiritual hunger. Might we offer sustenance from our rich store of spiritual resource?” The challenge is to find the imagery and language that allow us to enter another’s world in order to speak our truth honestly, respectfully, and effectively. What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?[13] → In the midst of all the unknowns in the world – the world around us and the world within us – “What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?” Amen.

[1] Ashley Strickland. “New image reveals the ‘gentle giant’ at the heart of the Milky Way” from

[2] Ken Follett. The Evening and the Morning. (New York: Penguin Books), 2020.

[3] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: New American Library), 1989.

[4] Ken Follett. World Without End. (New York: Penguin Books), 2010.

[5] Ken Follett. A Column of Fire. (New York: Viking), 2017.

[6] Acts 17:15.

[7] John S. McClure. “Sixth Sunday of Easter – Acts 17:22-31 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 473.

[8] Acts 17:16-17.

[9] Mk 12:17.

[10] Acts 17:19a.

[11] “Areopagus” from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible – vol. 1, A-D. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 216-217.

[12] Acts 17:22-23.

[13] Randle R. (Rick) Mixon. “Sixth Sunday After Easter – Acts 17:22-31 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 476.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: To An Unknown God

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Every Time I Pray | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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