Sunday, December 17, 2023
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Advent III
“This sermon is not a compliment”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 17, 2023
Reading: Acts 17:16-34

I’ve loved preaching through Paul with you this fall. Today is the first time we’ve done so with the book of Acts. In a way we have more angles on St. Paul than we have on Jesus. We have stories about both Paul and Jesus written by other people. But we have things written by Paul, we have nothing written by Jesus, we wish we did. This morning’s story is written by St. Luke. And it has Paul preaching at the Areopagus, sometimes called Mars Hill, in Athens.

This is a place you can visit to this day. It’s a great big rock at the foot of the Acropolis. Now it’s a tourist spot. In Paul’s day it’s where philosophers spent time debating ideas. So, this would be like Paul being invited to the faculty commons at George Brown or York or the U of T to give a presentation. And it doesn’t go well. Some scoff. Others say, ‘come back tomorrow.’ Paul doesn’t. He leaves Athens forever. Two people join up. Just two. Dionysius and Damaris. I’ve told you the joke from the Anglican before, who said: “Everywhere Paul went there was a riot. Everywhere I go they serve tea.” No riot in Athens. Just a shrug.

It’s been a moment for academics. You may have heard about three presidents of American universities hauled before Congress to talk about their schools, who struggled to respond when asked about anti-Jewish hate speech. One lost their job. There are deep inconsistencies about free speech on campus and in our society generally. In a way, it was unfair to those administrators to ask them to solve those in real time on television. But let me tell you another story about another university president, a Canadian this time. His first meeting with his prestigious faculty went like this. A Muslim friend told me later. “So, I was in church yesterday. Anyone else in church? Anyone? No? Weird. Okay, anyway I heard this great thing.” And my Muslim friend laughed, wow, that’s the most serious intellectual challenge this faculty has had in a long time. In fact, one almost might say diversity just arrived.

Paul is presenting the gospel to pagan, learned Greeks. That is, to non-Jews. And he tries to present it without its usual Jewish elements. He doesn’t quote scripture. Doesn’t talk about Abraham, Moses, God’s election of a people through whom to restore the world. Instead, Paul talks about Greek philosophy. He quotes one of their philosophers: “In him we live and move and have our being.” He cites an inscription to an unknown god. He quotes one of their poets, “we too are his offspring.” Paul is doing what missionaries do. He’s trying to find points of connection between the gospel and the culture to which he speaks. He’s also doing what a Greek orator was supposed to do: flatter your hearers. Build their confidence. Get them nodding along with you. At this point the faculty club is laughing at the jokes. They’re eating what Paul is cooking.

There was a time when professional learning was reserved only for the extremely privileged, the leisured classes, who could sit around debating while someone else grew the crops and cooked the food and fought the wars. But between Paul’s time and ours, something changed. We grew a middle class. University education opened to far more people. Someone else is still doing the cooking and farming, but more people get to do the sitting around and talking and listening. Up until the 1960s, we expected universities to act in place of parents, we even put it in Latin to sound important, in loco parentis (in place of parents). The campus protests in the 1960s were partly about dismantling infantilizing expectations of curfews and same-gender dorms. But the nanny campus grown back as we expect universities to issue trigger warnings and not hurt anybody’s feelings (that’s one thing at odds with the free speech part).

Brian Doyle was a magnificent writer, who bumped into a mom dropping her kid off where he taught. This is a little long, forgive me, because this dude could really write.

I got to talking to a tiny mother, and as soon as she started talking about her daughter, she burst into tears right there by the women's bathroom. "This is the greatest moment and the worst moment of my life. I was just changing her diapers a minute ago. Now, she's all legs and curiosity. I can't believe she's not coming home tonight. I'll get ready to send her a text message at midnight: 'Where are you? Come home now.' And she won't come home tonight. She'll be here with you. I love that and I can't bear that. Her father can't stop crying. He's out in the truck, you know. Everybody thinks he's a tough guy and he's out there sobbing in the truck. These were our babies, all these tall babies. Will you take care of her?

Will you know if she's sad and scared? She's scared more than she admits. She brought her baby blanket, you know, in the bottom of her luggage. She doesn't think I know, but I know. I held it against my face last night when I packed her bag, and it smelled like her, and I cried and cried. I hope you know how great she is. She's the greatest kid in the history of the world. You better take care of her! She never wears socks. She'll get sick twice this year, mark my words, in October and February. Are you writing this down?

Her father says he'll be fine by dinner. He will not be fine by dinner. He used to carry her on his back all the time when she was little. They would climb mountains that way, with her whispering in his ears. He makes fish just the way she likes it. He says he's got to go talk to your chefs here about how to cook their fish. She has the biggest heart of anyone God ever made in a million years. I spent every minute of every day since she was born thanking God for the gift of that kid. I can't stand this. You'll know her: she's tall, with long hair and blue jeans and a smile like the sun.

Christmas season is such magic. The kids come home. Whether they’re 18 and fresh off on their own, or 68 and seeing mom for the last time. This season captures all our emotions: about home, and making life on our own, coming back to the people who made us. It’s the best. And the worst. When those connections go wrong, when they’re severed by abuse or neglect or plain, old meanness, when you want to be home and loved and someone else wants to pour poison in your ear. Ivan Illich said, “the corruption of the best is the worst.” So it is with family, and home, and Christmas.

But family is not all Christmas is about. Paul shows it’s about ideas, truth, not just our feelings, sentimentality. Paul is debating with two groups in particular: Epicureans and Stoics. We still use both words. An Epicure is a lover of pleasure. I admire a good Epicure: someone who won’t stand for inferior music or cooking or scotch. Stoics are interesting too: folks who don’t want to get disappointed, and so don’t get their hopes up too high. In their ancient versions they agreed we don’t know if there are gods. But if there are, they don’t seem much concerned with us. So, live for pleasure, Epicureans said. Don’t feel too much, Stoics said, and you won’t get hurt. There’s wisdom in both suggestions.

But Paul takes deadly aim at them both. Remember he had them nodding along with him, happily. Now he drops a hammer.

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because [God] 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.

Woah. There went the pleasantries. There went the romantic notions of Christmas as family and warm feelings and movies with starstruck lovers in matching sweaters. Now Paul sounds like the crazy person on the street corner with the sandwich board screeching “repent.” Everything you believe, Paul says, is garbage. God allowed it before but not now. Because judgment is coming, when God will make the world right. And God has proved this by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. That’s a stiff drink in the middle of an otherwise pleasant Christmas party. Imagine that Canadian university president switching from “anyone been to church?” to “Repent. Judgment is coming.”

Now Athens has diversity. A Jewish zealot has told them their gods are fake. Judgment is coming. It’s proven by Easter. No wonder so few followed Jesus that day and Paul left the next. Some Greeks say Paul is preaching “foreign deities.” That was one of the charges that got Socrates executed. Those who like pondering new ideas for fun don’t like being told judgment is coming, repent. Nobody much likes being told that.

Wherever it’s gone in the world, the Christian church has done two things. We have built hospitals. And we have built schools. There are languages where the word for “church” is “the building beside the school.” Outside the west, even where our gospel is not popular, our schools and our health care still are. I tried criticizing colonialism in a Taiwanese context once. They agreed. Yeah, colonialism is bad. But we love that Scottish guy who built our hospital system. We still have his sculpture everywhere, things named for McKay. We Christians build schools and hospitals because Jesus teaches us. He heals us. The church continues his work of teaching and healing. But we can’t see this as Canadians very easily anymore. The U of T and most of our hospitals were once Christian missions as well. Now they’re secular, and a little embarrassed about their religious origins. But you can tell universities and hospitals used to be monasteries. Everyone gets a cell, there’s no place for children or old people or married with kids, this is because of their churchly origins. It was good to detach those institutions from church control, to serve everyone who wants education, who needs healing. But those are still Christian callings, and we’re still commanded to teach, educate, heal, make right. How do we do that today?

And universities need to hear the call to repent too. So do all of us. Christ is coming in judgment. Judgment and repentance are not bad things. They’re good things. You ever been lost, driving, and GPS says, “make a U-turn”? If she was speaking Greek, she would say “repent.” It just means turn around. Go another way. And if you’re a kid in rubble in Gaza right now, or if you’re mourning a slaughtered child in Israel, judgment sounds pretty good. It just means putting the world to rights, making whole everything we shattered. That’s what God promises at Christmas. Not just holiday cheer. But a world new-made, repaired, the world God dreams about, a world of justice and righteousness. That’s better news than an ugly sweater contest.

My title promises you a sermon that is not a compliment. Here goes. Paul says to the Athenians: I see in every way that you’re very religious. This is not a compliment coming from a Jew. It’d be like telling a womanizing philanderer, hey, I see you really love women! No, he doesn’t, he loves himself, and he uses women to make his little ego feel better.

Paul and Jews generally had little respect for pagan statues and shrines. There’s a story the rabbis tell in the Talmud about Abram as a child. His father Terah is an idol-maker. One day Abram smashes all the idols. Except the biggest. Then he takes the club he used to smash the idols and puts it in the biggest idol’s hand. When his father storms home, furious at him ruining their livelihood, Abram says, “oh it wasn’t me, it was that big idol there, he smashed the others.” Terah is livid: you know idols can’t move! Well why do you worship them then? A scholar friend of mine grew up Jewish, and was in university before she learned that story isn’t in the Bible, it was so often told at her shul, surely, it’s hiding in Genesis someplace?

Look again at what Paul says about God in this passage. He mostly says what God is not.

“What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23) God is not unknown anymore.

“God . . . does not live in shrines made by human hands.” He does not need our temples, churches, doctrines, statues. None of it. If God needs anything from us, he’ll let us know, okay?

“God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). For real, God does not need us to make anything right. It’s God who makes us right. Stop trying to save the world. That’s God’s job alone.

“God is not far from each one of us” (17:27). Talking to God is not like shooting arrows at Neptune. It’s not hopeless flinging things up that fall back down to earth. God is closer than your own heartbeat. Unbearably, uncomfortably close. As close as the gestating Jesus is to Mary, right underneath her ribs, kicking her kidneys.

“God has overlooked the times of human ignorance” (17:30). But not anymore. Yeah, y’all got away with being clueless for a while, but now God means business. Repent. Make things right. He’s coming in judgment.

Do you hear all the negative descriptions of God? God is not unknown, manipulable, dependent on us, disinterested. No, God sees every act of injustice and God will make them right one day, very soon. And Jesus is not dead anymore, and not far away at all.

Sometimes we say better what God isn’t than what God is. The wisdom in this passage is that lots of our notions of God are wrong. Even the more religious ones. God is so much greater than our notions. God is so much greater than we can conceive. That’s a philosophical point, worthy of the Greeks.

But here’s an Advent point, worthy of the Jews. God is not far. That’s what Stoics and Epicureans thought. If there are gods at all, they don’t seem to care, so don’t bother. No, Paul says, as a good Jew, God is close. Closer than we’d like. As close as an infant demanding her mother’s breast. God doesn’t not care. God is coming to make everything right and doing so very soon.

There was a popular play by Aeschylus that everyone in Athens would have known. The character Apollo says in the play “when a man dies, and his blood is spilled on the ground, there is no resurrection.” Paul is taking that so-called wisdom and punching it in the face. No, actually, God is in the resurrection business. He raised Jesus. He’s raising all creation too, and very soon.  

In this collision between university-based learning and Jewish justice, justice wins. Here’s a glimpse of how. There’s a verse hiding in this passage that was very, very important to abolitionists as they worked to outlaw slavery in the 18th century. You probably missed it. I sure did.  “26 From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth.” It’s better translated this way: “From one blood God made all nations.” One blood. Abolitionists and slaves said we’re all one blood, one humanity. And Christ comes for us all with human blood, wearing our flesh. Human beings can’t own one another—we’re family. The great Christmas hymn “O Holy Night” picks up on this, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” Right before the impossibly high note that no one can hit except some in our choir. Friends, Christmas is radical. God has become one of us, the same blood, to free all of us, and raise us from death. He’s coming to make the world right. Very, very soon. Amen.