Acts 17:22-43, May 21, 2017
In the movie Forrest Gump, the main character sits on a bench and talks and talks. Sometimes people listen to what he says intently, sometimes they get up and catch their bus. Sometimes they ignore him entirely. Still, throughout the movie we see Forrest talking and talking, either sharing pearls of great wisdom or obvious, literal truths, depending on your opinion. The movie shows us some of the ways we are able to respond when spoken to.
When I was in grade school I had a friend named David. David got interested in lots of things, but he didn’t really stay interested in anything. For a while it was Hardy Boys books. Then archery. Then the saxophone. Then basketball. He was in an amateur musical. Then baseball cards. For a while he had a newt and two lizards. Then bicycling. Then soccer. I may have left out a few of David’s interests in just a few short years. David had an ability to get really, really interested in things. Passionately interested. But something new always came along. He had the most interesting bedroom of any of my finds, because every interest came with new equipment and mementos. He was an interesting kid to be around, but he drove his mother crazy.
“David, why can’t you pick something and stick with it?” his mother would ask.
“I will Mom, just get me a horse and that’s all I’ll ever want. Promise.”
Part of being young is learning about the wider world. Our horizons expand as we encounter new things. So I hold David up as a good example. It’s good to be interested in new things and to try new experiences. I myself had five majors in college before I completed my first year. I kept taking classes that made me see with new eyes and it was exciting and stimulating. In a world where some people are not interested in anything, a wide variety of experiences even if they’re short-lived should be regard positively, I believe.
Jesus told a parable about teaching once. [Parables are special kinds of stories that make their points indirectly. Parables invite the listener to measure his life by them. In fact, the word ‘parable’ comes from the Greek word which means ‘measure’ or ‘compare.’ Parables are designed to make us think whether our actions “measure up,” literally.] “A farmer went to scatter seed in a field. While the farmer was scatting seed, some of it fell along the road and was eaten by birds. Other seed fell on thin, rocky ground and quickly stated growing because the soil wasn’t very deep. But then the Sun came up, the plants were scorched and dried up because they did not have enough roots. Some other seed fell where thornbushes grew up and choked the plants. But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered.” [Matthew 13:3b-8, CEV] Now, of course Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand the parable. How should they use it to measure their lives? There’s a great scene in the Last Temptation of Christ, where Willem Defoe, as Jesus, tells them, “I’m the farmer! Don’t you get it? I’m the farmer.” And so he is.
And sometimes Jesus’ words hit us exactly when we can hear them and apply them to our lives. Other times we aren’t paying attention and a little bird might as well gobble them up. In my own life, most often the word falls on shallow soil and I get excited and resolve to make radical changes in my life, but my efforts and ambition get choked by something else and wither and die. But the word keeps getting planted. And we keep returning to hear the word, expecting it to take root. And when it does, our efforts for Christ’s sake are multiplied and bear more fruit than we can imagine.
In our lessons this morning, Paul is preaching Christ. He has already done a lot of travelling by the time he reaches Athens. And he has been quite successful in starting new churches. Everywhere he goes he preaches Christ crucified and people believe and ask to be baptized. Paul’s task was not an easy one. He is beaten and imprisoned as he travels along, but everywhere he goes he meets with some success.
Then he gets to Athens. Athens is a college town, and “all the Athenians and he foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling and hearing of ‘the next new thing.’” [Acts 17:21, NRSV] When he got to Athens, Paul did what he usually did when he was in a new town. He went to the synagogue and engaged the devout people in debates. He also went to the marketplace and engaged Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in debates. He was good. He was interesting. He was a novelty. The Athenians wanted to hear more. They invited him to speak at Mars Hill, the place where murder trials were held, the place where the king’s council used to debate. It was a great honor to be asked to speak there. If Paul were a modern day entertainer it would be like performing at Carnegie Hall.
Paul gave a great speech! He was funny, he was urgent, he referred to local landmarks, he cited two famous poets: Epimenides and Aratus. And he was passionate. He attacked all the shrines and idols that filled Athens. He told them of a god who does not dwell in shrines or buildings that people make. He told the curious Athenians gathered there on Mars Hill of a god in whom all of creation lives and moves and has its being. And this majestic, unfathomable god is sending one to judge humanity. And this one who will judge us is the same one who was raised from death! It was a really great speech. In just a few sentences Paul took his audience from where they were to knowing the Lord and assuring them of forgiveness from the coming judgment. It was the performance of a lifetime in a place where many, many important, prominent people had spoken before on matters of great concern.
And when we was finished it says that some scoffed at the idea of the resurrection, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” That was interesting, and really entertaining, Paul. We’ll invite you back.
See, Paul’s audience regarded religion as a distraction, a hobby. Ideas and thoughts were to be played with, not believed. And certainly, no one was ready to commit to following what Paul preached. It was interesting, sure. It was even exciting and entertaining. But another philosopher would come along pretty soon. Another passionate messenger of foreign deities would come along, and well, that would be interesting too.
A lot has changed since Pau tried to convince the intellectuals in Athens to follow Christ. Now we’re not distracted by the latest new philosophy. Now it’s a news story, or a website, or an app, or a cause or a scandal or a disaster. These days we are bombarded by information—we receive more facts than we can process, we know so much that we can’t know how to respond.
One writer, twenty years ago describe our society as suffering from “data smog.” [David Shenk coined this term.] And from this smog, we can always pull some topic to play with, or be passionately interested in, or be righteously outraged at. It’s easy. It’s fun. And it’s temporary. Next week something will push the need for better security at public schools, or gun control, or parental responsibility off the front page. Just as the catastrophe in Brussels or Paris did. It’s always something, and we can expect it to always be something. Something to distract us, divert us, entertain us. And we never have to give our hearts to anything. We can keep skimming along on the surface of the world and its problems. We can keep springing up like seeds in shallow soil, only to wither in the heat of the Sun.
But Christ invited us to something else. Christ calls us to serve and live as his servants in the world. Christ calls us to feel the world’s pain, and reminds us that pain is real. The pain he endured on the cross for each of us should make us stop. Really stop. And recognize that in all the distractions our society offers us, the only place that we can give our hearts to that will bring true satisfaction is in his hands.
As people saturated by new things, only God through Christ gives us a new gift each day. Thanks be to God.