In The Chronicles
of Narnia, an allegory by C.S. Lewis, Susan and Lucy are getting
ready to meet Aslan the lion, who represents Christ. Two talking
animals, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, prepare the children for the encounter.
"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he
quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie." said Mrs. Beaver. "And make
no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without
their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just
"Then isn't he safe?" said Lucy. "Safe?" said
Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who
said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good.
He's the king, I tell you!"
If you have read the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, you know that
the lion, Aslan, is grand and noble, good and kind. And alive! Not
at all like the gods of the Athenians.
Before coming to Athens, Paul had been to Philippi, where his ability
to stir things up got him and Silas thrown in jail. Through a miraculous
escape, the believers whisked Paul away first to Thessalonica and
then to Berea to keep him safe. By the time he got to Athens, for
expediency he was keeping a lower profile, waiting for Silas and
Timothy to catch up with him.
Some would say that Athens was the most glorious city in the world
in terms of architecture and history. It was the cultural and intellectual
center of the Roman Empire. Besides being the cradle of democracy,
it had everything -- outstanding temples, artwork, sculptures, orators.
It was known for its mathematicians, philosophers, and astronomers
-- namely, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Athens was also a very religious center. In comparison to 10,000
people living there, there were 30,000 idols, a ratio of 3:1. The
Acropolis was a hill within the city, on which sat the Parthenon.
Just beyond the Parthenon was a rock 30 to 40 feet high called the
Areopagus from which you get a breathtaking view of the city below.
After conversations with people in the marketplace, Paul was invited
here to speak to a diverse and curious crowd.
Aware of his audience’s preferences and prejudices, Paul
began by praising them for their spiritual curiosity and wide-ranging
search for religious truth. “I’ve noticed,” said
Paul, “that you are very religious, with gods positioned all
over the city. I also noticed one that says “To the Unknown
God,” just in case you missed a deity you don’t know
about yet. Let me tell you about that God so you can worship him
intelligently.” Paul knows that even nonbelieving pagans can
see God in part through creation and the laws of natural order.
These Athenians have felt the divine presence when studying the
orderly assembly of heaven and earth, but attempted to capture and
tame that divinity in the form of idols. Paul wants them to know
that God is alive and active within this world. We are created with
a desire to know God, and when we seek God, God can be found.
Finally, Paul presents his conclusion, risking rejection by the
Athenians. What makes belief in this God different is that it is
no longer within our control -- it requires a leap of faith. The
crux of Paul’s message to the Athenians was Jesus and the
resurrection. God in his power defied death. Jesus who died is alive!
Paul’s sermon brought a mixed reaction. Some outright rejected
him, some mocked him, others were interested in hearing more, and
a few joined him and believed.
Two word pictures from the Acts 17 passage grabbed my attention.
Referring to the
many idols, Paul says: “God . . . does not live in shrines
made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though
he needed anything . . . “
Paul says, God created
us with an innate desire for God, “so that [we] would search
for God and perhaps grope for him and find him -- though indeed
he is not far from each one of us.”
In essence, I think the two together say, “God doesn’t
need us to make him God; God made us to need him.”
Reference to “the unknown God” brings to mind a classic
I studied at Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation. The book is
titled The Cloud of Unknowing. It was written by an unknown fourteenth
century mystic about the soul’s quest for God.
There was a time if asked who God is, my automatic answer would
have been, “God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent
-- that is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present.” I remember
being challenged by my brother-in-law about whether God is all-knowing.
He argued that a God who gives us choice can’t know what choices
we will make in the future, or it really isn’t choice. I argued
that even if God gave us day-to-day choice, God could know the long
range outcome. I acknowledge there is a lot about God that I don’t
understand. I have come to see our relationship with God as more
important than our knowledge about God. It’s kind of the same
as, “God doesn’t need us to make him God; God made us
to need him.”
Speaking of the “cloud of unknowing,” there are some
questions that even we, born and raised in the church, may rightfully
ponder. How much does God know about the future? Is God in control?
Does God have a perfect plan for each person?
I read an interesting article by the author of The Shack called
“Lie #3: God is in control.” We are control freaks who
want to control everything around us so the things we fear won’t
happen. Young says, “Control is a myth. We know that one rogue
cell or another person’s choices can change the direction
of our lives.” Something goes horribly wrong, like when a
car crosses the road in front of a motorcycle and the motorcyclist
is killed.” Even though well intentioned and perhaps reassuring,
it feels crass to say, “It must be part of God’s plan”
or “God must know what he’s doing.” Young says,
“Yes, God has the creative audacity to build purpose out of
the evil we generate, but that will never justify what is wrong.”
Listen to Young’s logic here. “Does God have a wonderful
plan for our lives . . . a perfect plan that requires a perfect
response? . . . What if this is about a God who has greater respect
for you than for “the plan”? What if there is no “plan”
for your life but rather a relationship in which God constantly
invites us to co-create, respectfully submitting to the choices
we bring to the table? . . . A true Creator knows he not only has
to shape, but also endorse and allow. Wisdom allows things to grow
and unfold. Love and relationship trump control every time. Forced
love is no love at all.”
How does that strike you? What I would like you to think about
is, what would shake your belief in God? If God can’t know
the future or isn’t in complete control or doesn’t have
a perfect plan for us because he chose to give us freedom of choice,
would that change or threaten your faith? Perhaps there are some
expectations about God that we need to hold lightly. Our relationship
with God is in progress, and we continue to learn. What Paul wanted
the Athenians to know is it’s all about “Christ and
the power of his resurrection. Christ is alive!”
A favorite hymn acknowledges we don’t know everything, but
affirms “I know WHOM I have believed.”
I know not why God’s
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.
But I know whom I
And am persuaded that he is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto him against that day.
I know not how this
To me he did impart.
Nor how believing in his word
Wrought peace within my heart.
I would encourage us to:
keep pondering who
God is (“if you seek me you will find me”),
hold lightly what
we don’t understand (“God is not served by human hands”)
and allow God to be
God (“in him we live and move and have our being”)
Paul admonishes us in Colossians 1:10, “Lead lives worthy
of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good
work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” Amen.