Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1334
Rev. Dr. Ed Pettus January 21, 2018 Acts 17.16-34
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
"Finding Our Story"
A Nation Without Its Narrative/Story
I have admitted to you before that I am a Star Trek fan. One reason is the occasional allusions to biblical themes that you don’t get in television shows anymore. One scene that may not necessarily be a biblical theme but sure could be is when Lieutenant Worf is telling a story to some young Klingons and they protested that a particular detail in the story was impossible. One of the young Klingons says, “You're making it up.” And Worf responds, “No. These are our stories. They tell us who we are.” (Birthright Part 1)
We would say the same thing about our biblical stories. They tell us who we are. But even more, they tell us who God is. The stories matter for both reasons, revealing the God who loves us and revealing who and whose we are. Stories matter. Family stories matter. Biblical stories matter. They tell us who we are.
The same can also be said about other entities. For instance, stories define nations. We might define stories as history or even stories that build the spirit of a nation. Their are historical facts and there are stories of character or spirit about a person or persons. One of the great concerns for out nation is that we have forgotten our story, partly because we have forgotten our history. When we lose our story, our narrative, we lose something of our identity. Amnesia sets in and the story of Christianity in developing a nation begins to erode. Values that once defined a nation begin to fall to those who would rewrite the narrative or replace the narrative altogether. When we lose our story, we lose our identity. It used to be that people who came to this country, they would learn to assimilate into the American narrative. They would become Americans of Irish decent, Americans of French decent, Americans of African decent...still carrying the heritage of ethnicity, but assimilated in such a way that America became your country, your land to defend and love, your new identity. But that does not seem to be the case many people these days, even among generations of citizens born here.
But this is not a sermon about our nation, it is a sermon about narrative and story and identity. It is a message about community and belonging and connections. It is a proclamation about the biblical narrative bringing meaning to the lives of all who are integrated into the narrative and become a part of the overarching story.
Acts 17 is a story about giving a narrative to a people seeking to belong and find their identity.
“The Church of the Latest Thing”
The Greeks in Acts 17 were without a narrative, even without a god. Their religion was “The Church of The Latest Thing” (vs. 21). Does that sound familiar to our day and time. Everyone is looking out for the latest new thing, the newest philosophy or trending topic or viral video. “Get me the newest iphone or I will die!” We are a people empty of anything that tells a story or a history or a remembrance of lessons learned. The narrative of a nation connected to a Church is going missing. All that is left is “The Church of the Latest Thing”. Imagine for a moment if Paul visited the shores of the USA. Could he not easily have written verse 21 slightly altered?
Now all the Americans and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
The only word I changed was Athenians to Americans. Think about how people don’t want to submit to anything old but only to new things. The US constitution is threatened. The Bible is an irrelevant ancient text. US history has no bearing on present day issues. That’s how many people operate today and the sad part is that they are not even aware of the value and critical importance of all these things of old.
When the Narrative/Story Is Forgotten
So, what happens when a narrative is forgotten, when the story is abandoned. We look to our other reading for this morning, Isaiah 59, particularly verses 14-15a.
Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.
Justice is turned back...how many times do we see injustices in the very places where justice should abound.
Righteousness stands far away...I see this as doing the right thing. Maybe the greatest example of failing to do the right thing is seen time and time again in Washington DC.
Truth has stumbled in the public squares…This may be the most telling scripture of our nation, from the insistence that the Ten Commandments must come down to the inability to run one’s business according to the principles of faith and Scripture.
Truth is lacking...I don’t think I can add much here. Truth is absent in so much of our context.
He who departs from evil makes himself a prey...People are afraid to get out of corrupt systems for fear that they will become a victim of that very system.
Isaiah is not alone in seeing the destructive nature of losing one’s narrative. Jeremiah states it this way:
This is what happens when the narrative of Scripture is forgotten. This is what has happened in our midst. The story, of course, is not completely gone. The story, the narrative of God still lingers. It cannot be destroyed. It cannot be snuffed out in the rhetoric of secularism or socialism or materialism or any other “isms” that are presented today. We know that God’s narrative is Truth, God’s narrative is salvation, God’s narrative is life. This is our story, this is our song.
What shall we do in light of our situation? We tell the story. We rebuild the narrative by retelling the Truth. We proclaim the Gospel. Paul tells us this in 2 Corinthians 10.3-6,
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
Our fight is not of the flesh but of thought, to bring every thought captive to obey Christ. Thus, our fight is to build people’s stories and nation’s stories into the story and narrative of God. We seek to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion against the knowledge of God. A prime example of our time is this nonsense about gender identity and transsexual and transgender and trans-whatever. These are all lofty opinions that are against the knowledge of God. It seems that those stories opposed to God’s are winning the day, but I say no, they are not going to win in the end.
Alistair Begg gave a lecture entitled No Place for Truth where he presented three approaches to our current context. You may have heard Alistair Begg on radio, he’s the one with the Scottish accent that makes everything sound true! He talked about two things to avoid when relating to the world: Admonition and Accommodation.
Admonition – We need to take care that we not become a people who do nothing but admonish the world. We can easily become self righteous Pharisees who do little but curse the darkness, rebuke, and reprimand, creating a spirit of condemnation over the culture or the younger generations or the way things appear to be. We become the old curmudgeon, “get off my lawn!” And we become pleased with our admonition and condemnation. We become arrogant in admonition. But we must be careful not to fall into this spirit. Titus 3.1-7 is a key to our attitude toward the world.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
This requires a great sense of humility and gratitude and love and grace and truth before God. We
Accommodation – The next response we must avoid is accommodation, responding to the folly of the world by bringing it into the church to accommodate the ways of the world. When this happens we a prone to adopt a diluted gospel that is not the gospel at all. We see it in more and more liberal corners of the church universal. Theology is replaced with psychology. The Bible is replaced by church rules and books of order. Paul best teaches this in Romans 12.1-2,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Accommodation is when we conform to this world, but we can protect ourselves from that by being transformed in our minds and that transformation can only happen when we are in the Word of God.
So, what are we to do? The third approach we gladly utilize is proclamation. Paul demonstrates this in our story for today, Acts 17.22-31
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
No to admonition, no to accommodation, yes to proclamation! The weapon of our warfare is God’s Word, God’s narrative, God’s story. Paul invites the Greeks to come to Jesus by telling them the narrative of God. He actually finds common ground by speaking of their religious nature and then he offers the story of God’s love that they might follow the known God rather than an unknown god.
Finding Our Story
Paul finds the Greeks in Athens, a place full of idols, full of idolatry. We see such idolatry throughout the fabric of our own culture, in movies, in literature, in politics, in sports, in medicine, in everything! So what are we to do? What did Paul do? He proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He sees that they are indeed very religious and worshipful. He points them to God the Creator and Jesus Christ the Savior. He points them to the Gospel. This is a strategy we would do well to think about for our own interactions with the people who cross our paths. We don’t have to memorize what Paul has said here, but find our story and our own experience in Christ. Find the expressions of the Gospel presented all through the Bible that is the best for our own story. For instance, I came to Christ through people who befriended me, so I am drawn to Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians 2.8 “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” My experience of Christ was with people who shared the gospel and their lives with me. Now, that is not how I always think about presenting the gospel, but it is one way.
Suppose we encounter someone who is broken in spirit, we might think about telling them that God sent Jesus to mend our brokenness. Another might feel unworthy of God or thinks they have to get their life together before God will accept them. Then we might think about sharing that Jesus welcomes us as we are and then He changes us into His image slowly, day by day. Every situation is unique. Now I would hope that we not feel like we have to have a pat answer to every possible situation, no, but have something! Have your story. Tell the narrative of God. Have at least an elemental defense of the gospel and have a willing spirit of humility to say, “I don’t know, but I would love to share in the journey to find answers or explore the questions or ponder the mystery.”
Most people, if not all, who do not know the Good News of Jesus and the person of Jesus Christ are people who have lost their story. They have lost the story that they are created in the image of God. They have lost the narrative that they are fallen sinners in need of a Savior. They have lost their story that they are loved by God. They have lost their narrative that they are the ones for whom Jesus came to die and be raised from the dead. They have lost their story that gives them everything that we know about real life and real truth and real love.
There are many false narratives in the world, but we know the story of Author of life. He is inviting us into His narrative, His Gospel story of faith, love, and hope. Only in His story are we found. Only in His story are we loved and saved and find meaning for this life. What we are doing in evangelism is helping people find their story, the story that brings them into the narrative of God. Amen.