The Listening Witness – Sermon – Rev. Alex Moir – 23 May 2021

WELCOME

Good morning First Baptist. We welcome you to worship this morning. Be sure to remember your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the week as you pray for them, and as the Holy Spirit brings their faces to your mind. Be sure to also connect with them in the ways that are possible. And if you have any questions or would like to talk to someone, please don’t hesitate to contact the church through the church telephone and leave a message. (519-733-4144)

Call to Worship

“Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm, thy throne firm from of old; from all eternity thou art God.” 

— Psalm 93:4-5

Prayer

As we live in a world where that which once was fixed has become loosened from its moorings and things held firm have vanished, we come into Your eternal presence, gracious Father.  As we have gathered on this day of worship, help us to distinguish between things transient and those that will sustain.  In the name of the One who existed from the beginning and sits at Your right hand today … even Jesus.  Amen …

Song

Today's Message: The Listening Witness

Scripture Reading: Acts 17:16-34

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

On our search for examples of “good listeners” we arrive in the book of Acts, focusing on an episode in the life of the apostle Paul.  At the beginning of our passage, he finds himself in that human condition all of us know about … waiting for some friends!  Where most of us would busy ourselves with something to pass the time … our phones, a good book, a conversation … Paul can’t help but see what is going on around him.  He is waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him in the great ancient city of Athens and notices that the city was “full of idols” (v. 16).

Of course, we might not be surprised at his interest.  Because of Paul’s Jewish background we would expect him to be shocked or “greatly distressed” at this display.  But it’s a point we may relate to as well, for the presence of idols in this once great city indicates the worship choices of those who lived there.  Worship is important to the human race and everyone has something “of great worth” to them … but one of the significant challenges in life is to choose to worship those things that are worthy of such attention. 

Far too often our worship choices consist of things in the area of pleasure, power, prestige and profit, which don’t have the staying power to sustain us in life.  Last week we saw how James, the first Christian pastor, challenged his readers to embrace priorities that would “bring about the righteous life” (James 1:20), the type of life that New Testament scholar Tom Long described as “counting for something or to someone.”  It is the life all of us need … and we believe that it is reflected most clearly in the life that Jesus can give.  As the songwriter stated, “People Need the Lord.”

It is clear that this day of reflection in Athens, waiting for his friends to appear, is leading Paul toward a dramatic moment, one that reveals his status as a good listener and communicator.  We will trace the development of this encounter … from his preparation to the delivery of his message unto the final result.

Preparation:

Very soon after he takes note of the idols prevalent in the city, Paul takes to “reasoning” or “conducting a discussion” on three basic fronts; “with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks” in the local synagogue (v. 17a), “in the marketplace” with anyone who happened to be there (v. 17b) and with “a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” (v. 18).  The fact that this exercise is labelled a “discussion” indicates that there must have been some give and take going on.  One of my professors used to suggest to us that if we expect others to listen to our faith story then we ought to extend to them the same courtesy.  Although we can be quite sure that Paul leaves no doubt as to where he stands on the subject of worship, it seems likely that some listening, on his part, was involved.

 Some of the apostle’s preparation happened long before this incident ever took place.  Paul indicates a familiarity with Epicurean and Stoic philosophy which reveals the depth of his education.  When I was sensing a call to Christian ministry in my teenage years, my pastor at the time gave me some sage advice.  Ultimately, every pastor looks forward to a graduate degree in theology where one truly focuses on theological themes and pastoral duties … but before that, he encouraged me to enrol in a good undergraduate program where I would be exposed to a wide breadth of knowledge in arts and science.  His reasoning was simple … I would be spending my career preparing and delivering messages along with counseling and leading the people of my church, who would come from a variety of educational backgrounds.  He suggested that the people I served would respect me more if my remarks and leadership reflected a respect for the body of learning that a university would provide.  This good advice suggests to all of us that our reading, our interest in the arts, the attention we pay to world events will gain us a listening ear amongst those we hope to help.

The final piece of “prep work” that Paul did must have happened right before his discussion sessions.  As he began his address, we read these words, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship …” (v. 23a).  Nowadays we call this, demographics where you check out your community to find out a bit about the people who live there … their economic status, the age of everyone in the household, etc.  As we began the new church at Banwell we did a fair bit of charting of the new community in east Windsor where we would be serving.  It was most revealing and had an impact on the kinds of programs we planned … and even the way I delivered my messages!

Delivery:

Before long, perhaps even the same day, Paul was taken to a meeting of the Areopagus or city council where he was invited to address the group.  The content of his message is very instructive to those of us who feel strongly about the spread of the good news.

Paul starts with a compliment, which seems to be very sincere … “Men of Athens!  I see that in every way you are very religious (v. 22).”  As mentioned above everybody worships something and, in the strict meaning of the word, that makes all humankind religious to some extent.  Singer/actress Bette Midler was once quoted … “I am not a religious person, but I am very spiritual.”  It’s helpful to be reminded that we are not starting from absolute scratch with our evangelistic endeavours.  Everyone values something to which they give ultimate worth.

Next Paul establishes one of the foundational pillars of faith … “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth … (v. 24a)”.  The scriptures and acute observation indicate to us that the created order could not have simply emerged from the primal ooze.  Astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle has remarked that suggesting that the universe could have happened in a random fashion is a little like believing that a tornado blowing through a junk yard could produce a Boeing 747.  Drawing an example from the human body another physicist, Sir Isaac Newton, once stated that, “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”  If the universe reveals some degree of purpose, human life takes on a new importance beyond consuming and achieving.

Paul makes another point later in his message that gives pause to ponder.  In v. 26 he states, “… and he (God) determined the times set for them (humanity) and the exact places where they should live.”  From this comment we may discern that Paul’s God is not a transcendent (far away, distant) God but one who takes an interest in the lives of men, women and children.  Perhaps it’s a little simple to suggest, as in former times, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” … but, at very least, we are reminded of the words of Jesus, teaching about a Father who knows the things “we have need of … (Matthew 6:32).  And to further quote the Master … “I have come that they may have life; and that they may have it more abundantly (John 10:10).” 

Finally, the apostle closes the message by the affirmation of truth … both that of the listeners and the Christian truth as well.  In quoting their own poets (v. 28) he establishes another connection with his hearers, affirming them for grasping at least some degree of truth (“We are his offspring.”).  My old missions professor told us one day in class about the “measure of truth” that could be found in all world religions.  We affirm some of the truth found in other faiths and admire those adherents for their discipline … which sometimes outdistances what we as Christians display!  But we humbly suggest that in the person of Jesus all knowledge has been summarized and fulfilled.  At the end of the message (v. 29-31) Paul drives home the truths of justice, repentance and the resurrection of Jesus, suggesting that, in the person of Christ, the mystery of life is properly understood.

Result:

In verse 32 and following we read how Paul’s message fared with his listeners.  Some sneered (v. 32a); some deferred judgement, suggesting that they would “hear you again on this subject (v. 32b).”  However, we read in v. 33 that a few became followers.  This ratio of hearers to believers seems to mirror the results Jesus suggested in his famous parable of the sower in Matthew 13.  In this parable the good seed is the word of God, falling on different kinds of “soil”; on the path, where birds ate it … on rocky places where the soil was thin and germination was difficult … in amongst the thorns which choked out the young plants as they began to grow.  But there was one soil … the good soil where the good seed took root and produces an abundant harvest.  It is helpful to remember Jesus’ counsel as we consider our role in sharing the good news.

Back in 2001, just a few weeks before the September 11th attacks added another dimension to the pursuit of world peace, Linda and I were visiting ancient Greece with some dear friends.  I remember so clearly the hot, clear day when we visited Mars Hill, the place where Paul preached his message that day so many centuries before.  The hill was worn smooth from so many visitors through the years, so we had to scramble up on all fours … but what a rich experience it was!  I sat there and imagined how Paul’s words would have produced first time faith in a few of those gathered … now precious those moments would have been!  And all because of a great listener … who walked around observing, entered into conversation, complimented what they had achieved and suggested to them “a more excellent way.”  

Reflect

O Lord, find us faithful, as we seek to be your faithful listeners today!

Prayer

Our gracious Father we pause to thank You this day for Your word that will not return to You void as scripture states, and as we have experienced in our own lives.  It was a good seed that was planted in our hearts.  May our own stories of faith give us confidence in this ministry that we share in this world … a world that You still love.

We confess to You this day, patient Father, that we sometimes forget the thread of worship that binds all of humankind together.  As we acknowledge this truth, give us a new appreciation for those around us who, as we ourselves have sometimes done, seek meaning in life in less than satisfactory ways.  Jesus said they were like sheep without a shepherd … may our compassion for others reflect His own.

Finally, God of the ages, the elements of our worship today remind us of the prevalence of Your Spirit no matter what conditions develop in the various corners of our world.  Whether in the tense communities on the West Bank, the crowded streets of our major cities, the workplaces and fields around the globe, as Paul suggested “you are not far from each one of us.”  How encouraging, our Father … to know that wherever our steps in life take us, You are not absent.  We give thanks for this in the strong name of Jesus, the anointed … amen.

Song

Benediction

“In the period of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; that kingdom shall never pass to another people; it shall shatter and make an end of all these kingdoms, while it shall itself endure forever.” 

— Daniel 2:44