Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  
 

Easter 05/29/2011

The reading from Acts last week had to do with the stoning of Stephen, the story of the first Christian to die for his faith.  One verse of that reading was, “Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  That was chapter seven of Acts.   Today we fast forward to chapter 17 and a lot has happened to that young man named Saul.  He has undergone a conversion experience the result of which is that he has gone from being a leading persecutor of the early Christians to being the greatest evangelist the church had seen or ever would see, now known as Paul rather than Saul.  Some were suspicious about this radical transformation in Paul, but he became accepted and had some early success in his proclamation concerning Jesus but leading up to the reading we heard today things hadn’t been going very well.

While in the city of Philippi Paul and his co-worker Silas were imprisoned, basically for disturbing the peace with their preaching and following their release they were asked to leave that city.  They then headed for Thessalonica, maybe 75 miles away (all of this in what is present day Greece) where some were receptive to their preaching but others, who were threatened by what they said, formed a mob and attacked the house where they were staying, claiming that Paul and Silas were “turning the world upside down” and proclaiming Jesus as a king in opposition to the emperor. 

So they were again jailed but subsequently bailed out so they moved on another 40 or so miles to Beroea where they were initially received more favorably than in Thessalonica, until the folks back in Thessalonica heard about it and came to Beroea to try to rally the people against Paul and Silas.  Sensing trouble and thinking it best to get Paul out of there, his supporters sent him by boat to Athens well down the Aegean coast line and out of harms way where the plan was for Silas and Timothy to eventually join him and that’s where things pick up in today’s lesson.

If you studied ancient Greece in about fourth grade like I did, you perhaps remember that Athens and Sparta were the two major cities.  Athens was noted for being the educational and intellectual center; they were the thinkers, Sparta on the other hand were the tough guys, the warriors.  So as a result you’ve got schools like Michigan State that call their teams the Spartans, but I don’t know of any schools that call their teams the Athenians.

By the time Paul would have arrived there Athens was a bit past its prime, but was still the city that best represented Greek culture, and past its prime or not Athens represented quite a different setting for Paul and the way the story is told in Acts makes it quite interesting.  Of all the situations Paul ever finds himself in, this trip to Athens might come closest to representing our own modern day context.

The verse immediately before today’s reading says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”  That could be seen as a good thing for Paul as he had something new to share with these intellectually curious people.  Before he did that though, he had some time to explore the city a little bit and one of the things he noticed was that there were numerous idols around the city, statues of various gods including one to an unknown god.  Paul being Paul, you knew that he couldn’t just let this slip by; the text says he was distressed by the number of idols he saw but on the other hand it seems that he also saw the religious curiosity of the people as a possible advantage in getting them to hear the gospel. 

What this does though, is to raise the question of why they created those idols.  Why does anyone create idols?  In many cases it comes down to a quest for security.  If you’re a people who believe that there is a god who provides rain, you want to make sure you properly honor that god so he doesn’t give you too much or too little.  So you build a statue.  If you believe there is a god who controls the growth of crops and the harvest, in order to make sure there’s enough to go around you want to properly honor that god.  So you build a statue.  You get the idea.  In the case of the Athenians, just in case they’d overlooked something, they also had that statue to an unknown god.  In their quest for security, they were trying to cover all the bases.

Our idols are different, in some ways more subtle than those of the Athenians.  We’ve got the idol of money, material goods, consumerism; we’ve got the idol of country, national pride; we’ve got the idol of youth, the latest pill we can take to keep us forever young.  There are others of course, but the reason that these things are subtle, is that they all represent things that can be very good so that we don’t even that they are idols, but it doesn’t take much to move them in that direction; and if you think about all of these things that I mentioned, like the Athenian idols, they all have to do with what we think will give us security.

Sooner or later though, idols are exposed.  The economy goes in the tank and we find out we’re not as financially secure as we thought.  9/11 happens and we find out that even spending billions on the defense budget, we’re not as safe as we thought.  Despite the wonders of drugs and medical science, nobody’s getting younger.  As the late rock star Warren Zevon said, “There’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done.”  We just don’t know the date on our train ticket.

What do we do when our idols are exposed?  We try to rebuild them.  We prop up failed companies and let them keep doing what they were doing, the market improves and we feel better, for awhile.  The prevailing wisdom in Washington still seems to be that we’re going to eliminate everyone who doesn’t like us and so we feel better when bin Laden is dead, but the terrorists are still out there.  We like our idols though, so we hang on to them.

The idolatry that Paul faced in Athens wasn’t quite the same as modern day idolatry but I think one of the sobering aspects of this text is that Paul’s preaching in the face of that idolatry wasn’t all that effective.  Acts is full of stories where thousands at a time are baptized, but in this story just a few come to believe, some are willing to hear more from Paul, and some just scoff at him.  It may be that some of the people of Athens were open to discussing various ideas about God, but it doesn’t sound like many were really interested in an encounter with the living God.

Our task vs. modern day idolatry might be even more difficult than what Paul faced in Athens.  Those people were at least open to a discussion about God, even if it was more about ideas and concepts.  For us, we have those who are not even interested in the discussion.  We could have people say, “You know that list of idols?  Why don’t you add your church and your God to that list?  Isn’t that all about a quest for security too, just covering all the bases, hedging your bets on eternity?  And hasn’t your God been exposed too, most recently in the natural disasters that have killed innocent people?”

That’s what we’re up against, and it’s not easy to respond to. With some who would raise those questions there might not be much that any of us can say that would affect them and it’s not the place for an argument anyway.  What it is, is a time to heed the words from First Peter; “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”  An accounting for the hope that is in you; that hope is what we have to talk about and that hope has to do with Jesus.  Some look at what goes on in the world and decide there is no hope, no direction, no meaning.  All the idols have been exposed and we’re all alone.  You live, you die and that’s that. 

But as Christians we always have hope and it has to do with Jesus.  We believe that God acted in and through Jesus.  We believe that Jesus became human to show us who we could be and to make us who we are meant to be.  We believe that in the resurrection God showed definitively that his answer to death and the deathly systems of the world is life, new life, new possibilities.  We believe the words of today’s Gospel when Jesus says “I will not leave you orphaned.”  We believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and empowers us and gives us hope.  It’s more than a quest for security; it’s about a relationship with the God who made the world and everything in it, the God revealed in Jesus.  In the face of hopelessness we give an accounting of our hope and it has to do with Jesus.

We continue to celebrate Easter.  We believe that God did a new thing on Easter and that in doing so, the world is changed.  That change has to do with hope and that hope has to do with Jesus.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

Previous Page

Home

Map

Newsletter

Calendar

Church Life

Sermons

Contact Us

“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

Website designed and maintained by Superior Book Productions