(May 25, 2014)
(Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-19; 1 Peter 3:8-22; John 14:15-21)
Hugh Mackay’s book, Why Don’t People Listen?, begins with the following phone monologue:
Michael? Listen to me. What’s that noise in the background? Well, go and turn it down. I’ll hang on…Are you there? Listen. Something’s come up at work and I’m going to be a bit later than usual. I’ll tell you about it when I get home. Dad’s not answering his mobile – is he home yet? Well, when he comes in, tell him I’ll be about an hour late, and he should go ahead with dinner. We’re having sausages and they’re in the fridge. You could get them out for him. Tell him you should all go ahead and eat if I’m not home in time. Now, where’s Kelly? Is she home yet? Good. I’ve sent her a text but she mightn’t open it, so will you tell her I’m going to be a little late home, and she should get on with her homework right now. Are you listening? Please tell her to get on with it right now – it will be too late after netball. If I’m not home in time, Dad can take her to netball. Michael, are you listening? Put Kelly on…Well tell her to turn off the TV and get on with her homework. I’ll see you soon. Don’t forget to tell Dad about the dinner. Oh, and you can have your bath now, Michael, Michael?
Upon arriving home, Margaret finds an empty kitchen, the sausages still in the fridge, and no sign of the family. Michael’s school bag is unopened on the floor and his folded pyjamas imply there was no bath. Kelly’s room is a disaster zone but her jeans on the floor confirm she at least changed for netball. Margaret eventually finds a note: ‘Gone to McDonald’s. Then to drop Kelly at netball. Come and find us – or we’ll see you when we get back. Love, W.’
Perhaps you identify…
Mackay goes on to state the obvious:
People are not blank slates on which we write our messages. People are pulsating bundles of attitudes, values, prejudices, experiences, feelings, thoughts, sensations, aspirations – and expectations. They are active, not passive, even when they are listening. Is it any wonder that, unless we make sure the relevance of our message is obvious to the audience, there is every chance they won’t really listen at all (even if they are nodding and grunting encouragingly) or that, if they do, their own concerns might still get in the way? (Hugh Mackay, Why Don’t People Listen?)
This is good advice for anyone who wishes to communicate. It is especially good advice for anyone who wishes to share a message as precious as ours.
People are rarely, if ever, ‘blank slates’ when it come to either life or God. If people are to truly hear the story of God they will need to see how this story interacts with their story.
Today we have heard Peter assume that each of his readers has a story of an encounter with God that needs to be told: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.’ (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Many followers of Jesus are shy when it comes to the stories of their encounters with God. They may seem too dramatic, too perfect, too long, too short, too odd, too boring, or too mysterious.
But we do well to remember that we never share these precious encounters into a vacuum. God is already at work in us, our world, and our Spirit inspired stories.
Our Gospel reading assures us of this. With Jesus’ coming death, resurrection, and ascension ‘another Advocate’ will dwell among the disciples hovering over their mission to the world. Jesus may be going but the ‘Spirit of Truth’ is coming.
The eleven disciples are not left ‘orphaned’ or entrusted to a stranger. Rather they, and their mission, remain in the very care of the one they have come to love and obey.
The Spirit of Jesus will soon be loosed among them.
Similarly, Acts 17 is a remarkable story with all the potential to lead us more deeply into the strange world of communicating the gospel in the power and presence of the Spirit.
You see, Paul never intended to visit Athens. It looks like an accident that he finds himself with time in this city. He narrowly escaped persecution in Beroea and fled down the coast to the safety of this bustling metropolis. His companion’s delay gave Paul unexpected time in this place where the message of Jesus has never been preached.
In Athens, the Good News was New News and Paul is essentially a lost foreigner. It is not a promising start.
But the Spirit of God is already there.
Paul begins by walking the city. There he discovers a culture that prides itself on collecting, understanding, and considering ideas. As Paul explores, studies, listens, and understands he realises that the Athenians were a deeply philosophical, and religious people. Theirs is a culture already searching for God.
And Paul’s response: a deep distress. It breaks his heart to see the city so ‘full of idols’. It reads like a slowly emerging burden, a fresh call upon the life of the great apostle, an identifying with the heartache of God.
This is not, of course, to imply that idolatry is a new idea. Jeremiah wrote: ‘For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that hold no water’.
And it is still around today. Kenda Creasey-Dean introduces her book on youth ministry with the following: This project is founded on two convictions. The first, that adolescents today are looking for a soul-shaking, heart-waking, world-changing God to fall in love with; and if they don;t find that God in the Christian Church they will most certainly settle for lesser Gods elsewhere. The second conviction: so will we. (Creasey-Dean, K. The God-Bearing Life).
Paul’s walk is, of course, an exercise in love. It oozes respect and demonstrates the primal missional desire to connect not condemn; to communicate not simply to tell.
And he is soon debating in the local synagogue and ‘marketplace’. He has listened carefully and won the right to speak.
Our reading picks up the storyline just as Paul begins his speech before the Areopagus – a scholarly community that epitomised the values and priorities Paul identified. Here, despite his heavy heart, his message of radical conversion, and his belief in the resurrection, he begins by affirming their search: “Athenians, I see how very religious you are in every way. For as I went through your city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription: ‘To an Unknown God’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Paul is convinced their misguided idol worship reveals a God-guided search. He sees this in the strange inscription; in the words of their poets, and; in their desire to discuss and consider ‘the meaning of life’.
For Paul there is a lot to affirm among the people of Athens.
I wonder what the modern equivalent might be to these early poets and searching inscriptions? The more I listen to our culture the more I realise that we rarely answer life’s questions. More often than not, however, we are drawn to those who ask life’s questions relentlessly and passionately. I think of musicians movie makers. Perhaps you think of poets and novelists.
Either way, we love the search and connect with people who articulate it.
Paul speaks of this search as God-ordained from the very dawn of time. He points to the nature of all that is and indeed to the resurrection of Jesus. It is an invitation to identify that which is true, reject that which is false, and to believe in the one God raised from the dead.
And that day some heard in Paul’s gracious message the very call of God. Their response: to join his mission and ‘become believers’.
There is a wonderful assumption that sits behind Paul’s mission and message. He assumes that God is already at work. The Spirit of God does not arrive with him. God is already there: ‘…indeed, he is not far from each one of us.’
Surely It would make a profound difference to our witness among our neighbours if we were to embraced this reality.
So I want to finish by sharing with you a small portion of my story of faith. It was a moment where I suspect my search was affirmed.
When I was 3 years old my mother asked me the simplest of questions before our usual prayer time before bed: ‘Mark, would you like to ask Jesus into your heart?’
‘Yes’, I answered.
And my mother led me through the simplest of prayers. It probably went something like this: ‘Dear God, I know I do the wrong thing and that this breaks your heart. Please forgive me and enable me live my life for you. Thank you for Jesus. Amen.’
I do not even remember the incident and I suppose if my mother had not told me the story as I grew I may never have known. All I can say is that I believe this childlike faith continues to grow as I do. It was the birth of the ‘hope that is in’ me. It is not my whole story, but I believe it was the start.
At any rate, it is worth telling because it just may be a story through which God’s close Spirit speaks to yours.