Dealing With the Indescribable

 Acts 17:22-34


After a person has been trained, the trainers, and especially the people who PAID FOR the training run exercises to discover whether anything has been learned or not.

In one language-training exercise, people are put into pairs (Person A and Person B). Person A is given a sheet of paper and a pencil, and Person B is given a card with a diagram on it. Person A is not allowed to see the diagram. It may be something simple, like a circle and triangle, or it may be something complex, like the diagram on the front of our bulletin today. Person B describes what she sees, and person A has to try to draw it. This tests both of them…showing whether one has learned to speak understandably, and the other has learned to listen well.

Of course, most people fail. We’d probably fail even in our native languages, whether the diagram was a simple as the one inside the bulletin or as difficult as the one on the front. Imagine yourself trying to describe either one of them to another person so that he or she could draw it without seeing what you’re seeing!

In the New Testament story we read this afternoon, St. Paul was trying to describe God, in whom he believed, to a bunch of people who had no experience with God. Because he was educated in their language, that wasn’t the main problem. As he prepared for his speech, he walked through their city and observed their environment. He found some connections in their religion and even an altar that he respected. And from the background that he had in their literature, he pulled up a couple of quotations. He began dealing with “God Indescribable” at a place where he assumed there would already be agreement.

What we read is not a report by a journalist who took notes of what went on and what was said. It’s a well-written story by Paul’s friend and doctor, Luke, in which a basic set of ideas is laid out for the presentation of beliefs created in the Asian cultural context (of Paul and Jesus) for people of a Western cultural context. That Western culture had invaded the Asian homeland of Paul and Jesus, and was causing all kinds of cross-cultural conflict. In this story, the Asian ideas are presented in Athens, the very center of the invading culture’s headquarters.

There’s an English idiom for what St. Paul did there, It’s called, “Taking the tiger by the tail.”

I: vv 24-25  Describing God in Relationship to the Cosmos

When I started to get accustomed to living in Taiwan some decades ago, I had to learn different orders of writing things as simple as dates and postal addresses. I’ve no idea why it’s this way, but in Europe, dates are written from small to large,(day, month, year) while in Taiwan they’re written from large to small (year, month, day). Americans get both of those orders mixed up.  And when you write an address on an envelope, in Taiwan you start from the County or City and write the smaller things after that. Not so where I grew up, where we, again, do things in a mixed up order.

When St. Paul began to describe the God of his people, his culture, and his faith to the city council in Athens, he began with the “BIG”, and worked his way down. “God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in man-made temples.” Now, those in the audience who listened to him knew the second part, that gods didn’t live in man-made temples. Their gods lived on Mt. Olympus. But as for the first part, that God made the world and everything in it and was the Lord of heaven and earth…. This was new stuff. Their creation story was full of wars between gods and giants and “titans”. It included a lot of violence, a lot of sex, and a lot of lying. Compared to what they had learned as children, what Paul was telling them sounded pretty good. They kept listening.

Their religion had no priests or clergy. If you became the mayor of the city or the governor of the province, part of your job was being the priest there. People made offerings of the kinds of things they, themselves, needed, because they assumed that their gods needed the same things, so food, drinks, precious objects, and even animals were given. The worshippers would eat the parts of the animals they liked, and burn what was left over as an offering to their gods.

In telling the folks at “Western Culture Central” that his Asian beliefs were different, St Paul told them that the one who had created everything didn’t need anything. That’s quite a switch, isn’t it?

In the Greek folk religion, people were created along with all creatures by Promethius, who outsourced the details to a friend. This friend gave all the good stuff to animals and left nothing special, like flying or fur, to the humans. Out of sympathy, then, Prometheus made people stand on two feet, and gave them fire.

The description of the relationship of humans to God that we find in verse 26 is quite different, and is designed to stand “over against” the belief already held by the people who were listening.  But note, in presenting it, Paul never says, “you guys are wrong. Let me tell you the truth.” The humans are made by God, but not limited. Humans are spread all over the world.

II: v27-28a and Psalm 113:7-9  Describing God’s Presence with Human Beings

Probably many of us here have, at one time or another, made some plans for the future, whether for the long term or the short term. Probably upon telling our plans to another person, we’ve been challenged with the question, “Why would you want to do that?” For example… if you said, “I’m going to Taiwan to study at a university there,” then probably someone asked you, “why there, why that…?”  Sometimes Taiwanese acquaintances ask me “why did you come here?” These are natural questions.

So Paul sets out the answer to them. God created all of humanity and spread them out over the whole earth “so that they would look for him and perhaps find him.” This was not a new idea for Paul, who had been educated in his own people’s culture, religion and bible. We read from Paul’s bible (the Old Testament) this afternoon that God “…raises the poor from the dust; lifts the needy from their misery and makes them companions of princes… (and)… God honors the childless wife in her home, he makes her happy by giving her children.”

In contrast to the gods who lived unapproachably on Mt. Olympus, he asserted a God who would bend down from the heavens to see people, who was not far from anyone gathered there, in whom, as had already been mentioned by one of the Greek poets, “we live and move and exist.”

OK, if God is our creator, then what are we? Once again, taking his cue from a Greek poet or two, we are God’s children.

III: vv 29-31 Describing the formlessness and intentionality of God

We all know about children. Though we may not see many of them on the University campus, they are all over the place. Children are smaller and less experienced people than you and I. And most of us probably have a few memories of what it was like to be a child. We wondered when we would grow, when certain parts of our bodies would take larger shape and form (a very natural thing for a child to consider), and if we would end up looking more like our father or mother, or maybe hoping not to look like either of them.

We know fairly well what we look like. Paul used that knowledge to draw a comparison of images made of gold, silver and stone that were in the folk religion temples of Athens. Those things didn’t look like people, so they couldn’t be gods, because children look like their parents. BUT, because God (whom he was presenting) is without form, was indescribable, knowledge of God is found not in form, but in “intention”.

It’s God’s intention that makes the difference. God wants to be found, and wants all people to turn from evil. According to Paul, a judgment day has been set and a judge has been appointed.

People could hear him up to this point. They may even have recognized certain things as “evil ways” (and pointed out that OTHER people were the ones whose ways were evil and had to be changed. They may even have agreed that some other people they knew should be judged, sooner rather than later, and were happy that a judge and trial date had been set.) But it’s here that things broke down, because in declaring all this to the men of Athens, Paul played his high card. PROOF!

God’s genuineness is known in Jesus, and most excellently in that Jesus had died and risen. For folks who already believe in Jesus, this seems obvious. For those hearing all this stuff for the first time, it’s really REALLY weird.

CONCLUSION: vv 32-34 Honest responses in Athens

But that’s what it comes down to in the Gospel. Jesus Christ, and him crucified and risen. Leave out all the stories of miracles Jesus did, all of the parables he told, all of the things he taught his nearest friends and all of the kind deeds he did for people who came to him in need. Leave all of that, but keep the death and rising, and you still have a savior.  Keep everything else and deny rising from the dead, and you’ve just got another guy, like a lot of other religious leaders through history in any and all religions.

The story we read here, written by Paul’s friend Luke, ends with the responses of the hearers.  They were all honest responses. Some people made fun of him. What he said was BEYOND what they could accept. Others were mildly interested and agreed to hear more, later (maybe never, but they were polite about it), and yet others believed.

As we live and move and exist in Taiwan, we may be seeking God (as was described in verse 28) or we may be sharing the good news of Jesus with others in very natural ways, or we may be attempting, like Paul, to bridge the gap between cultures of different beliefs. Whichever of these, or of many other positions we may take, people will respond to us, and we need to accept their responses as being honest.

Our way should be like God’s way, seeking to relate to people, to be present among people, and to do so intentionally. Because God has created us, called us here, and given us life.

May God who is near to each of us, be present to everyone in this city through us. AMEN.



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