There’s an old saying that goes something like “Flattery will get you nowhere”, but in this case, a little flattery got Paul quite a hearing.
Paul was wandering around Athens, a city noted for its arts, philosophy and sophistication. Among the many public buildings he spotted a number of temples dedicated to various members of the extensive Greco-Roman pantheon. Why so many? It wouldn’t do to ignore a god who might get upset at the slight and do something awful in retaliation. There was even an altar to an “Unknown God,” a true marker of how seriously Athens took its god-worship. There might be another god out there they didn’t know about but they weren’t taking chances that the unknown god would get upset. Messing around with gods just wasn’t good.
Paul called attention to this altar when called before the Areopagus, the Athenian high council that mandated things both judicial and legislative, to explain his claims about this “Unknown God.” Now, if anything, Paul could talk a good talk and knew when a bit of flattery would get him somewhere and this was definitely one of those times. He commended Athens for its religious observance and then proceeded to tell them that this Unknown God actually had a name — God — and had created all things including time. This God didn’t have or need idols of gold or silver, even stone, clay or wood. This God was different and this God was bigger and better and more powerful than any of the representations of the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. Paul laid it all out and the Athenians listened.
I wonder what gods Paul would find worshipped if he wandered around one of our modern cities? Tall buildings as temples? Gods of commerce and ease and pleasure? Idols of rock stars and entertainers and public figures? Worship of money and greed and “I’ve got mine, good luck getting yours”? I don’t think it would take him long (once he got over the culture shock) to see those temples and altars and idols. We make it very easy; it’s called advertising and it works. It encourages our worship of things we probably don’t need by portraying them as things we do need, we must desire, we must possess. Never mind the cost, whether financial or ethical, we must have these things in order to be fulfilled, comfortable, and on par with or above our neighbors. We worship money and power and often overlook the cost to our souls for doing so.
There is still an Unknown God out there, one we visit on Sunday but don’t always remember during the week. It’s not a god whose essence or power can be captured in an image no matter how precious the metal or how flawless the gems adorning it. It’s not a god who is susceptible to flattery and can be bought off with offerings and occasional flattering attention. This is a God who has the power to create universes with a word and who has a refrigerator big enough to show the pictures of every person that has ever been on the face of the earth. We can barely even begin to comprehend the vastness of our ever-expanding galaxy, much less the borders of space that seem to be pushed back with each new telescope and every continued spacecraft journey, so how can we even begin to figure out the limits and expanses of God? We can’t, and so in some ways God remains unknown. What we do know, however, is that God is here, now, among us, unseen by us, often unrecognized by us. God is in the faces of the beggar with his tin cup next to the restaurant where plates of unfinished food are often dumped in the garbage or the woman bending over a sewing machine for hours, sewing garments to be sold for ten thousand times as much as she will earn for making them, or the child suffering from a disfigurement or disease that could be easily cured if the money and the doctors were available. God is in the butterfly and the cat and the snake, the rocks and the trees and the restless ocean. Everything that is, has been or will be has a bit of God within it, perhaps even those things to which we devote our lives to attaining, obtaining or maintaining. What we don’t see in many of those things, though, is the God-spark, the presence of God in all things, a spark waiting to be encouraged to grow into a full flame. Paul would probably shake his head and wonder where the message went astray.
Paul’s words didn’t reach everybody who heard him that day but some got the message. Some are just now reading this story and getting the message. Some, though, will read or hear the story and simply keep walking — walking past the temples and altars that we have created to worship in place of the Unknown God who beckons us.
No matter how much we know (or think we know) about God, including what we don’t know, there is so much more than we can ever even imagine. God is in the little boxes we have that we label “God” and think we understand what is there, but God is also outside the box since no box could possibly contain all that God is. Still, we seek the Unknown God that we know is there and yet don’t fully comprehend. Sometimes we just go for the wrong god, the one we do understand and for what we think that god will do for us.
The Unknown God — still present and still unknown. I wonder what Paul would say? I doubt the words would be flattering.