CS Lewis was fond of saying, “people in the church don’t need to be instructed; they need to be reminded.” In other words, part of the Gospel’s difficulty is its simplicity, and the great task of the Christian is not to absorb the latest ideas but to return – time and time again – to the simple truth of the Gospel. Swiss theologian Karl Barth was among the most influential theologians of the 20th century, and over his life he wrote 13 volumes, which took 35 years, to explain the meaning of the Christian faith. He was once asked by a reporter if he could summarize those 13 volumes in a few sentences, to which Barth replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The Gospel’s difficulty is its utter simplicity, and we who call ourselves Christians don’t really need to be instructed, we need to be reminded.
Today, what I’d like to do is look at Paul’s speech to the Athenians, because in it I see for key reminders at the heart of Christian discipleship. And those four reminders can be stated as follows.
God can’t be served.
We were created to seek.
To the extent that we find we will repent.
First, all people are religious. “Athenians,” Paul says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” You see Paul’s been walking around the city and can’t help but notice all of the shrines. There was a shrine to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty; Ares the god of war; Artemis, the goddess of wealth; and of course many more. Now, you and I live in a world that thinks there are religious people and there are secular people, but is that really how the world works?
You see that word religion – it comes from the Latin ligare, which means to “bind or to connect.” In other words, our religion is that which we bind or connect our hearts to in order to feel secure. Now, I seriously doubt you worship the god of war. But are you ever tempted to rely on your power and sense of accomplishment in order to feel secure? I know I am. And I seriously doubt that any of you have a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in your home. But is your wisdom – your knowledge and ability to speak eloquently about science or politics or something else – is that your primary source of meaning? We are all extremely religious. We all bind or connect our hearts to something or to someone to feel secure. That’s not the question – the question is always to what; the Living God or some other shrine made by human hands?
As Timothy Keller puts it, “We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. We may not actually burn incense to Artemis, but when money and career are raised to cosmic proportions, we perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting family and community to … gain more wealth and prestige.” In other words, it’s never a question of whether or not a person has faith. The question is always, who or what is our faith in?
God can’t be served.
That brings us to our second key point – God cannot be served. In the words of Paul, God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Doesn’t the Bible call us God’s servants? Isn’t “serving God” a good thing? And of course the answer is yes – and no. Today, I just want to point out one aspect of the servant metaphor that we need to avoid.
You see Athenians were incredibly superstitious. In fact, that Greek word translated religious can also be translated superstitious. For instance, no one worshiped the God of war because of the intrinsic beauty and splendor of Ares. No, they worshiped Ares when they were on the verge of going to battle – they served that God in the hope that Ares would return the favor in the form of a military victory.
Here’s the point that Paul’s trying to make. Every so-called god makes us work for them, makes us serve them. The perfect example of this is the Enuma Elish, which is the Babylonian Creation Myth, written about the same time as the Book of Genesis. In the Enuma Elish, there’s a battle of the gods, which the god Marduk wins. And so Marduk – to celebrate – decides to slash open the belly of one of the defeated gods, and from that dead god’s belly comes the earth – if you’re a young Babylonian student, this is just science 101. Anyway, Marduk decides to allow the other gods to live on the earth and enjoy its recourses. The only problem is, keeping up the earth is hard work, and so what do the gods do? They create humans to do all the work they were too lazy to do. Now, that’s just one example, but it does capture the worldview of the pagan world, and a lot of people in our world – we were created to serve the gods. But not the Living God, Paul says. The Living God is different.
Has anyone ever told you that God has no hands but you and that if you don’t come through for Him then God’s in trouble? If that’s really the case we’re in trouble. Because we don’t come through, and aside from our anxiety and our sin and our fear, there is nothing we can give God that He doesn’t already have. There is big a difference between Jesus Christ and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam won’t enlist you in his service unless you’re healthy. Jesus won’t enlist you unless you’re sick.
We were created to seek.
Which brings us to key point #3. If God didn’t put us here to serve him, then why are we here? We were created to seek God. We were created to love God. We were created to know God. As Paul puts it today, God created us to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Now, I had to look up that word grope because, well, it just sounded creepy. The Greek word literally means to “reach out expectantly hoping to feel something.” I spent Friday night with my goddaughter, who isn’t even 18 months old, and each time I picked her up she started reaching, sometimes pretty forcefully, in an attempt to grab my nose. That’s the image Paul’s trying to give us. We are infants in the arms of God. We are his “offspring” – it is in God that we live and move and have our being – and God created us to reach out, day after day, to find him.
Richard Foster wrote a great book called Prayer and in that book this is what he says. “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.” In other words, God wants to be wanted. God seeks to be sought. He longs for our presence. Augustine once said, “Our souls are restless O Lord until they rest in thee.” But, according to Foster and according to Paul, God also longs for us. His soul is restless until we rest in Him. We were created to seek him, for “we too are his offspring” – children created to reach out for God.
Now, what exactly seeking God looks like will differ for each one of us. We’re all different, and God deals with us differently. But I do know that at least three things are nonnegotiable – intentionality, scripture and community. Intentionality is obvious. No one drifts into a deep, sustainable relationship with God. Scripture – we can’t live the story if the story doesn’t live in us. And community – our faith may be personal but it definitely isn’t private. We need other Christians to help us find Christ.
To the extent that we find we will repent.
Now, to the extent that we do find – or to the extent that we’re found – we will repent, and that of course is key point number four. Now, the word repent – it does not mean to say we’re sorry or to feel bad for our mistakes. Both may be fine things to do, but it’s not what repentance is. The word repent literally means “to change our mind,” or “to turn.” Repentance is about changing our mind. It’s about changing our mind about the things we’ve bound or connected our hearts to and to acknowledge that they can’t give us whatever it is that they promise. It’s about changing our mind about the many ways we try and barter with God and to acknowledge the good news that we are not needed – just loved and celebrated and cherished, but not needed. It’s about turning away from a self-seeking life to a God-seeking life, and to acknowledge that God wants to be wanted, and seeks to be sought, and that God longs for our presence.
After all, Paul is clear – “God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness.” But for the Christian, that great Day of Judgment is not something that will happen. It’s something that has happened – once and for all – on Golgotha Hill. To quote Karl Barth again, “the Judge was judged in our place.” For that cross is God’s great reminder that God himself is also extremely religious, for he has bound His heart to us and will stop at nothing to get us back.
The only way we can serve this God is to know – and I mean know – that the Living God lives to serve us. And so as we go out into the world seeking God, may we never forget that God is always seeking us. And finally, in light of all this, as we ponder what it means to repent – to turn to the Living God – may we be reminded that in Christ the Father has already repented – He’s already turned – towards us with arms open.