Some of you who are a bit younger in this room maybe won’t know who this guy is, but about 10-15 years ago he was a really popular TV personality. Second, I would say, only to Oprah. The man’s name was Dr. Phil. Dr. Phil, I think just finished the last season of his show this year, and he made tens of millions of dollars bringing people onto his show to help them navigate difficult life situations. But Dr. Phil became a household name because of one brilliant phrase – some of you probably know it – here’s the phrase: “How’s that working for you?”
So, Dr. Phil would bring these people on his show, and ask them to share their problems in life, and they would. They’d spend about 45 minutes talking about how “this is my problem and this is what I’m going through, and this is my other problem, and it’s all terrible.” And Dr. Phil would say, “Okay, tell me why you think this way or feel that way, or do that.” And they’d respond to that, and you know what he’d say after that? “Well, how’s that working out for you?” And everyone would cry, and clap, and it was like “Yes, Dr. Phil, you got it! You showed that person that they need to look at things differently and change their attitude. You saved them.”
But do you know what Dr. Phil was really doing? What any counselor would try and do and that is to get that person in front of them to doubt or question what they had always believed to be true, but maybe was not quite right. You get the person to doubt their assumptions so that you can show them a better option. Check it out. Paul’s doing that right here in our lesson.
Paul is in Athens this center of knowledge and culture, though at this time it was a bit diminished from its glory days, it was still an important city. The people here were proud and smart and deep thinkers. And, Paul had been walking around talking to some of the leaders in Athens and was eventually invited to actually speak at this meeting of the Areopagus. It was a big deal. And Paul uses then this opportunity to challenge the assumptions, the beliefs of the people of this city. Now, how does he go about this?
Well, pay attention because this is a great way for us as a church and for you as an individual to reach out and either plant a seed that might lead to others coming to faith, or it might be your opportunity to share very directly all about Jesus. Here is what Paul does. First, he acknowledges the people in Athens are religious. “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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.”
In 2005, American writer, David Foster Wallace, gave a commencement address at Kenyon College. It was titled “This is Water” and I think Time Magazine called it like the best commencement address ever. Anyways, here is just a snippet from that speech.
“There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, parables; the skeleton of every great story.”
David Wallace, he ended up killing himself in 2008, but, as you see here, he recognized that life without some sort of benevolent god was fruitless; it was meaningless. Everyone needs something to worship, some sort of religion to follow. And, as Paul looked out at these Athenians, he saw the same, that they were all religious. He saw that they had all these gods, even an unknown one. He acknowledged their beliefs and their desire to worship…something…but then – and this is the second thing we learn from Paul – he challenged their beliefs.
In verses 24-31, he makes the case that their gods are man-made and for them to exist and work, those gods need to be served. Their gods need them, but the God that Paul wants to show them is “not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” Paul’s God created mankind, he wasn’t created by mankind. And, think of how crazy Paul must have been to say this as he stood there at the Areopagus in the backdrop of the Parthenon this temple to man-made gods.
Paul goes on in those same verses to point out that their gods don’t give meaning to life, they don’t give any real purpose. Instead, they do what Wallace says and they end up “eating you alive.” They consume your time, and attention, and in the end leave you with nothing. Whereas, the God that Paul proclaims, he appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Here, Paul says is what gives life meaning, it’s a relationship with the triune God, it’s being brought into his family forever. That is our purpose. We find our identity in Christ. Finally, after digging deeper into the Athenian gods and comparing them to the one true God, look what Paul does: he talks about judgment.
Paul anticipates the argument that I think even we make from time to time that, “Hey, if God’s real and he doesn’t like what I’m doing or doesn’t approve of this sort of thing that I enjoy, why hasn’t he done anything about it?” And Paul’s answer is, “He will.” He will judge the world. The same Jesus who came to save the world will come back to bring justice and punishment on the last day, so don’t take his patience as a sign of affirmation, don’t think he is okay with your man-made idols, he’s not. And when he comes to judge you, your idols, the wealth you gathered, the physique you maintained, the name you built up, the accomplishments you are proud of, well, how’s that gonna work out for you? They won’t save you.” So, how’s that working out for you?
I’m asking you that question…and myself. Because, sure, Paul’s talking to some obvious idol worshipers, but how many of us don’t have idols of our own? And, no, I’m not talking about some little statue that we light a candle in front of or pray to, I’m talking about an idol that we quietly worship and rely on in the privacy of our hearts. That idol could be money or beauty as David Wallace said, it could be power or intellect, but I think it’s simpler than that, and it might surprise you when I say this, but so often that idol we worship is simply me, you.
If you look at it, this is what Paul was getting to as he spoke at the Areopagus. The Athenians were worshiping all these different gods that they created. They were trying to come up with their own explanations for creation, and the meaning to life, and morality, and judgment. Sure, it led to this multitude of gods, but those gods all stemmed from the idol worship of self. So, what are the gods you’ve created for yourself?
I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter because we could go and smash all those gods. You could give away the wealth that you worship, or humble the pride that you hold, you could relinquish the victim status that gives you purpose, you could destroy those idols – whatever they are – but the idol that truly needs to be smashed is here, inside. I can’t smash that idol, neither can you. Have you tried? How’s that working out for you?
Maybe you’ve tried to be decent enough. Done more right than wrong, thinking that it’ll be enough to get you to the good place after death. Maybe you’ve instead realized you’re not going to win that battle, so you’ve just given up, racked with guilt you feel as though you deserve the worst. It’s possible you just don’t care, though I might question that. Either way, whatever it might be, you’re still living in that temple of self that you created with your own hands? So you see, for us to share the one true God it’s important, necessary even, to challenge your own sinful beliefs, to understand why you need him and why you worship him.
And this is finally Paul’s point, a real God doesn’t need you. A real God doesn’t need you to try harder. A real God doesn’t need you to feel worse. A real God doesn’t even need you to care. A real God is God. And the one true God, the one Paul sought to share, chose to save you and me from the idol that is ourselves, in one way only: through the man Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, but then rose – his tomb was empty! And that is all you and I need to know.
And, in the end, that is all Paul shared. He gave the Athenians what they were always looking for, a Savior. And, isn’t that why you’re here? We’re here because we know we need a Savior too, we need Jesus. We need that tomb to be empty because we’ve seen the alternative and it’s not pretty; it doesn’t work out. And you and I know this because someone like Paul revealed our ignorance. Someone shared Jesus with you and made sure you either grew up in that knowledge of him or introduced you to him later in life and the Spirit worked.
And that revealed knowledge of God is what shatters the idol that is you and makes you new. It leads you to try, it leads you to grieve over sin and repent, it leads you to care, not because those things save you, but because your heart and your soul reflect the love of Christ and now you desire to live for him and with him.
And, I gotta ask, “how’s that working out for you? A religion that doesn’t rely on me and my daily fickle feelings. A religion where God sacrificed himself to serve me, to save me, and to give me peace, and forgiveness, and life everlasting. A religion that gives me confidence each day, even when those days are difficult and hard. That doesn’t sound so bad. This is what Paul offered those Athenians, and this is what God gives to you, but not just to you, he offers it to your family, and your friends, to your neighbors, to all. And so maybe you know someone who is religious, and they’re trying to find meaning, and justice, and purpose in this thing or that, in politics, or race, or gender, or community, or health. Think about pulling a Paul with that person. Ask them, “ how’s that working out for you?” And then show them what they’re missing. Amen
Be like Paul. Show them what they’re missing. Amen.