Acts 17: 22-31
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the 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. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
I was on facebook the other day was surprised to see that one of my friends from seminary recently had a baby, and another had just published her first book. Another recently announced that she is pregnant, while a few others were graduating with doctorates or PhDs. In the midst of all this, I had this realization that we all know so many people and social media allows us to keep up with them….but only from afar. Out of my many facebook friends, there are only a handful of people who I actually see face to face and who really know me as a person- my personality, my likes and dislikes, what is really going on in my life. In today’s world, it’s so hard for someone to really know us, and for us to know someone. In today’s world, it is getting harder and harder to really be known. But what does it mean to be known? To be known is to be acknowledged by the other as someone who has value and meaning. And that’s getting harder to find in a world where we are more isolated from one another. It’s getting harder to find someone who really knows you.
In our text today, Paul challenges the people of Athens to go from the “unknown” to the “known” by doing away with their altar to the unknown God and gives them the good news that there is indeed a Known God, who is the God of all creation and the God who became known to us in the flesh as Jesus Christ. The Known God is not a God who is far away, but who is within our reach, and a God in whom we live, move and have our being. In Athens, the Unknown God was not so much a specific deity, but a placeholder for whatever gods actually existed, but whose name and nature were not yet revealed. The Athenians for so long have been worshiping an object- they have been worshiping a “what.” They have been worshiping a nameless, unknown being. Paul is challenging them to replace that unknown “what” with a known “whom” and give it a name- the Creator God revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul challenges them to be open to the message that there is, in fact, a Known God, and this Known God is actively seeking a relationship with us. This Known God wants to know us in a personal way.
In a world where it is getting more and more difficult to really be known, the fact that there is a Known God who actively seeks and wants to know us is very good news. It means that we matter, that our stories matter, and that we are worthy of really being known- not just on the surface, but deeply and intimately. I’d like to share with you the story of Renee, a 19 year old girl. When her friend first met her, cocaine was fresh in her system and she hadn’t slept in 36 hours and would not sleep for another 24. She had known so much pain in her life- depression, addiction, abuse, attempted suicide, and arms scarred with self-inflicted wounds. A few days before she was expected at rehab, she took a razor blade and cut a phrase of shame on her arm- a deep and infectious wound. For the next few days, friends and strangers alike surrounded her and had one job- to love her. To know her. They became her church, the body of Christ coming alive to meet her needs. They came together to write love on her arms. She began to open up and tell her dark story, her past, her fears, her sadness. The prettiest girls in the room approached her and told her she’s beautiful. It was as if God himself was reminding her. The next day, Renee entered rehab, but only after giving her friend a gift- the last razor blade that she used to injure herself- as a reminder that she no longer needs it or wants it. A reminder that she matters, is loved, and is worthy of being known. Renee is out of rehab today and has rebuilt her life, and no longer finds herself in the depths of darkness. She made the choice to trade death for life. (http://twloha.com/vision/story)
This is the true story that inspired the organization called, “To Write Love on Her Arms.” It is a “non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.” Their vision is that they actually believe these things: (http://twloha.com/vision)
You were created to love and be loved.
You were meant to live life in relationship with other people, to know and be known.
You need to know your story is important, and you’re part of a bigger story.
You need to know your life matters.
We are meant to know and be known. That is the key to living a life that is full of fulfilling relationships, and the key that we are to actually believe that we are worth knowing. And I believe that starts with us knowing the Known God who seeks to be in relationship and to know each one of us. Unfortunately, so often we do not know the Known God because of the idols we put up for ourselves. We get stuck worshiping our own shrines to the unknown god or even gods that we set up for ourselves. The latest research shows that every day we are subjected to at least 3,000 different messages, whether through TV commercials, newspapers, or social media. How do we even begin to sort out which messages are worth listening to and which ones are not? How do we even begin to decide what messages to follow and which ones to forget? Our culture is full of shrines and temples to multiple gods, unknown and unknown, and our society is more than happy to tell you at least 3,000 different ways to gain wealth, success, and happiness if you follow their path.
We are always told to keep seeking something better, when the best thing actually might be in front of us. When we set forth to find ourselves or to find God, we oftentimes think of a spiritual quest of sorts, which usually involves going to a far away, exotic place and finding God there. The Native American culture placed great importance in the rite of passage known as the Vision Quest, where a young person, usually in their formative teenage years would spent up to 4 days by themselves in the wilderness, fasting and attuning themselves to nature. The goal was to connect deeply with natural and spiritual forces, and to have a vision of the direction of their lives and guidance to seek out the correct path in life. We often hear today of people going on pilgrimages to various locations to seek meaning and a deeper relationship with God. When Corey and I traveled to the Holy Land, we were recognized as pilgrims on a journey to find meaning in the experiences of seeing the stories of Jesus come to life, and there is certainly value in that.
But Paul challenges us here to recognize that the Known God is always among us. This God is not a God who is far away or foreign, but who resides in our innermost being. The Known God is the one in whom we live, move, and have our being. God is not somewhere else, but right here, right now- all around. How we see God in this way matters! God is as far away as the farthest star, yet as close to us as breathing. We need only to look as far as within ourselves to know God and for God to know us. We only need to open our hearts to discover the Known God for ourselves. Sometimes this begins with reminding ourselves that we are worthy of being truly known and to know the difference between what we do know, and what we do not know.
We do know that all are meant to know God. We hear the good news that God longs to know us. The challenge is to believe and live in to this good news in a world where we are so often unknown and unnoticed by others. At Auschwitz there are ponds of ashes behind each crematorium, marking the grave of millions of people who perished there- unknown persons without names, faces, or stories. At these ponds are markers with these words: “To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. In this pond lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.” Although no one knows exactly who is buried there, those who visit Auschwitz may find comfort in knowing that God knows them. God knows their names, faces, and stories. We know them when we honor their lives even though we may not know literally who they are. They are still human beings who were and are known by God.
It is the same way with the tomb of the unknowns or more commonly known as the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people visit the Tomb of the Unknown Solider every year to honor the lives of those who gave their life for our country, but yet whose names are unknown to us. The inscription on the tomb is this: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier, known but to God.” Although we may not know the names of those who rest in the location of the Tomb of the Unknowns, we know that God knows each and every name as we know them for their sacrifice.
God knows each of us and is within and through us. But how do we know the known God? We are told in the Gospel of John that Jesus Christ makes God known to us as the Word or “logos.” The word (logos) became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. Although we typically translate the word “logos” simply as “word,” there is more depth to it than that. Logos is a Greek word that also means a principle of order or knowledge. The word made flesh is the full knowledge of God. So in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God reveals himself to us, giving us the opportunity to know God in the most intimate way. God is made known to us through Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth. This word truth is also important, because if we study this word (in Greek, alatheia), we find that its meaning is to “come out of hiding, to be totally vulnerable or naked.”
Christianity believes that “truth” is a person. God makes himself known to us by becoming the truth- by coming out of hiding to reveal himself to us. Truth is relational. God makes himself known to us by becoming vulnerable- by becoming flesh and blood that we may fully know him through Christ. We can look back at the birth stories and remember that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh. God is made known to us by becoming truth, by coming out of hiding to reveal himself fully to each of us. Jesus’ mission, then, was to bring us out of hiding so that we may become the most authentic human beings that we can be- and we are most authentic when we allow ourselves to be fully known by God. “A human becomes human in the process of being known . . . by other humans and by God” (Leonard Sweet). It’s a reciprocal relationship- God seeks to know us as we seek to know God.
Paul’s speech about the known God was mocked by some, and remembered by others. Some walked away but maybe wanted to hear more. Others believed and followed him. May we be the ones who stop and listen and choose to follow. May we find joy and hope in the fact that we do not worship an unknown God, but a known God who seeks to know each of us personally. May we recognize that it is God with whom we live, move and have our being. May we know at our core that each of us is meant to live a life in relationship with other people, to know and be known, most of all, by God. Amen.