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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Wednesday, September 23, 2020  

Today’s Scripture Reading  |  Acts 17:16–34

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For 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. The 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, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From 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, so 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. For ‘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.’ Since 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because 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.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (NRSV)

Paul had traveled to the cultural center of learning in the Roman world. While Athens no longer held the political clout it once did, it was still the birthplace of learning, culture, and ideas that permeated the empire. Perhaps something like a combination of the Ivy League and Hollywood wrapped into one? Either way, the city was bustling with leaders in philosophy, art, and discussion, those whose ideas ruled.

Paul didn’t like what he found. Acts reports he was “deeply distressed” at the idolatry of seemingly everything. No one knew what to believe or who to follow, and so they tried to follow everything—including the unknown. So Paul dug in. He spoke with everyone who would engage him, in both religious circles and centers of commerce. Every day he’d go to the market to speak with whomever would listen.

Finally the local philosophers—usually the ones to hold court—had enough of debating with him individually. You can sense their frustration: “Enough already, we’ve heard you; we know you want an audience, so take it!” They thrust him into the spotlight of the Areopagus—the largest stage for ideas in the whole empire. “Go ahead, tell us all at once so we don’t have to keep listening to you every day.”

Paul steps out. He seizes the opportunity, reflecting on what he’s learned to share the good news in a context his audience may understand, referencing their altars and poets. He may not be from their elite schools, but he proves he can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.

And some of them truly listen and hear.

God, grant me courage to seize the opportunities you give in my spheres of influence. Help me listen and learn so I can share your love in meaningful ways. May your truths, not mine, be heard. Amen.

Written by Sarah van der Ploeg, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

Reflection and prayer © Fourth Presbyterian Church

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