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“I see that you are . . . “

I’m taking some time to simmer a bit in a certain story in the Bible. It’s the account of the apostle Paul visiting the great city of Athens. (Acts 17:16-34) I began a short sermon series on this passage last Sunday at The Gathering Church: “Connecting the Dots – Hopes that Look Like Idols, But Point to God.”

It’s an amazing story about what happens when a Christ-following Jew spends a few days hanging out in the ancient center of learning, philosophy, and Greek temples. Xenophon, a Greek poet, said that Athens was full of so many temples that it was easier to find a god than a person.

The NIV uses the phrase, “greatly distressed,” to describe the spiritual ‘seizure’ that Paul has by what he sees. Read the Psalms and the Prophets with the background of the Second Commandment that says don’t make idols, and you will get a clue as to what is so upsetting about the attempt to capture the Almighty God with an image or an idol.

But, as upset as he is, Paul meets them where they are – -smack dab in the middle of their idol worship, when he says, “I see that in every way you are very religious.” (Acts 17:22) He then begins to build his presentation using their religious commitment.

Hmmm . . . . Why didn’t he let them have the total judgment of God? Why didn’t he lower the righteous boom on them?

It’s as if his outrage over their idolatry intensified his love for God and love for them at the same moment. Wow, when does that ever happen with religious people?

When I become aware of how messed up people can be by the ridiculous idols they serve, I tend to become self-righteous and condemning. (I also pretty cleverly hide my own worship of the same idols. Denial is essential for a good batch of self-righteousness.)

But, Paul starts where they are, not in a condemning way, but almost in an affirming way. He has first of all taken the time to figure out where they are. He has not condemned them or dismissed them. But, he has met them.

So, I started thinking about what Paul might say if he spent a few days in my town?

“I see that you are . . . . . . . “

What idols are hopes in disguise?

Academic learning and achievement?

Great kids with all the best opportunities?

Sports success?

Financial security?

Job advancement?

Where am I inclined to judge people for some of those things rather than see the connection that very idol may be to a hope that only God can fulfill?

If Paul can see the incredible power of the good news about Christ in Athens, I bet I may be able to see it here – if I look.