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Worshiping the Unknown

August 20, 2017

Topic: God is Creator of All People Scripture: Acts 17:16–17:34

Tomorrow, Carbondale will, for a few brief moments, become the center of the universe. Eclipse chasers tell us, if you have any conceivable way of getting to point of totality, do so. One chaser declared, “This is the most awesome astronomical event there is. Period.” What can possibly live up to that kind of hype? Be sure to wear safe and proper gear

An eclipse is a moment in time, and some moments prove to be pivotal. Paul’s speech in Athens was a moment. He might have churned with revulsion at all those idols, but he graciously focused on their one monument to “an unknown God.” He knew they were in the dark, spiritually, but instead of condemning their ignorance, he wanted to share the light. He sought to proclaim the one true God, the Unknown--revealed in Jesus Christ. We can know the character and nature of God by the character and nature of Jesus. He doesn’t solve the mystery, he embodies it. The power and being of God will always remain a mystery. We can’t control or solve it. We can’t put God in a box. Yet Paul declares, “In him we live and move and have our being.” And this mysterious, unknown God “is not far from any one of us.”

Matt and I set our summer preaching texts some months ago. It’s always a challenge to discern how - what we chose back then, will apply to circumstances now. I approached the text wondering about its message, in light of events in Charlottesville and Washington. I was interested to learn that Pastor Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, chose Acts 17:26 as a guide, out of all the possible verses he might have chosen. He writes, “This I a moment in our national life to present the Bible’s strong and clear teaching about the sin of racism and the idolatry of blood and country, no ifs, ands, or buts. In the midst of his gospel message to secular philosophers, Paul makes the case that God created all the races from one human. Paul’s Greek listeners saw other races as barbarian, but against such views of racial superiority. Paul insists that all people and races have the same creator. Since all are made in God’s image, every human life is of infinite and equal value. One main effect of the gospel, of truly worshiping the unknown God, is to shatter the racial barriers that separate people.” So writes Tim Keller.

We’ve had a moment, and it reveals something, perhaps many things. One by one the US military’s most senior leaders have publicly and bluntly repudiated the racist violence that plunged Charlottesville into chaos. They each declared unequivocally that the nation’s armed forces oppose white supremacy. They recognize the threat to our national security that is posed by waffling, for it could destabilize the military itself. Gen Mark Milley tweeted, “The army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps Commandant, tweeted, “No place for racial hatred or extremism in USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act.” The chief of the National Guard declared, “I stand with my fellow Joint Chiefs in condemning racism, extremism, and hatred. Our diversity is our strength.”

Why all these extraordinary tweets? The US military knows about Nazis. They are currently fighting extremists called ISIS and Al Qaeda. They must maintain harmony in their own diverse ranks. Unquestionably they were responding to a vacuum at the top, their own commander. I won’t dwell on this but I will say it. They were answering not merely a failure to condemn, but pushing back against word from the top that actually seemed to encourage and comfort the white supremacists. It was a moral moment. Military chiefs stood up. One, whose clear word was extremely needed, did not. Thank goodness for our military.

The twitter messages led me to some self-reflection. What are my core values? What role do these values--honor, courage, commitment—play in my life? Have I invited the God revealed in Jesus to spiritually cleanse any racism from my heart? Do I recognize that I’m not free of white supremacy, which has been such a scourge to people of color all over the world? Do I realize how I’ve benefitted from white privilege? I’ve never been stopped for driving while white. Do I merely tolerate other races, or am I actively working for the full humanity and equality of all? It’s not just Nazis and KKKers who are responsible. It’s all of us.

A moment in time: Paul recognized his moment. The eclipse will be one. A week from tomorrow there will the remembrance of another moment. On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 250,000 people stood in front of him, stretching all the way down the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument. The capital had never seen anything like it—although Marian Anderson had sung in 1939 to a crowd of 75,000 at the same spot. The Dr. King moment was made more poignant by the recent assassination of Medgar Evers, who though under constant threat, remained steadfast in the fight for justice in Mississippi. Somebody tried to run him over with a car, as happened in both Charlottesville and Barcelona. Ultimately he was shot in the back on his own front lawn.

Dr. King’s speech was pivotal in moving the nation toward civil rights. His dream, of liberty and justice for all, lives on. We must not despair. We must not go backward. God’s will for human life has been revealed for us all to know. Divisions of race, class, gender, orientation, ability or disability, are overcome in Christ. “Once to every man and nation,” declares the old hymn by James Russell Lowell, “comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side; some great cause, God’s new messiah, offering each the bloom or blight. And the choice goes by forever, twixt that darkness and that light.”