Monday, May 30, 2011

Looking for God: a missiology of everyday life

This is a sermon preached on Acts 17, with the Gospel reading being John 14, to a combined service of 6 rural church communities.

Today’s reading from Acts 17 invites us to look for God in the everyday world around us. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

The reading starts with the Apostle Paul waiting for his friends. And with a few days off, he decides to wander the city. Not a bad life really when you think about, a few days off in Athens.

Athens was sort of Canberra and Melbourne mixed together. It’s a city of decision – it’s got politics and power – “a museum for the world of Greek culture.” (Witherington The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 513)

It’s also a city of debate. “a sophisticated … university town.” (Willimon, Acts: Interpretation 142). Filled with ideas – the reading talks about Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

In this city, Paul wanders. He visits the Acropolis. He checks out the Parthenon.

Interactive question: Anyone here done this? Been to Greece, been a tourist like Paul and wandered Athens? What were they like?

So in this city of decision and debate, being this tourist, Paul wanders.

Often as tourists we go through culture shock. We see a new culture and we can find ourselves feeling a bit lost and confused. Become a bit homesick and lonely. Can end up comparing the worst bits of the new culture with the best bits of being Aussie.

Perhaps that’s what’s happening for Paul in verse 16 – “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul was brought up a good Jew, and in good Jewish culture here O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Not many.

So, wandering this great city, perhaps feeling a bit disconnected, he could well have experienced culture shock.
Which makes his response really interesting doesn’t. Rather than point out the worst bits, rather than condemn what he doesn’t understand, he tries to build some bridges, to make some connections. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

In verse 22 he starts with a compliment “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are extremely reverential.” Looking for the good, something to give thanks for.

Then in verse 23, he notes an altar to the Unknown God. Trying to build a bridge.

Then in verse 28, he quotes a poet, a man named Epimenides – “For in him we live and move and have our being.” And a 2nd poet Arastus – “We are his offspring.”

So this is Paul. Meeting a strange culture, meeting people he doesn’t understand.

Rather than rush to condemn, he takes the time to look carefully. To enter the temples and look at their idols. To read their poets, to look for connections.

A friend of mine called this God prospecting. Sort of like gold prospecting. To be like Paul, to wander our world, to look carefully at our culture – looking for God in the world. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.
What’s interesting is that Paul has done this before – had to the eyes to find God in the world around us.

Back in Acts 14 the scene was more rural. A place called Lystra. More like Fleurieu Peninsula than North Terrace.

In Acts 14:15-18 makes another speech. Quite different from this speech in Acts. He quotes not poetry, but the goodness of creation. “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” That’s Acts 14:17

So in the cultured city of Athens you talk about poetry, but in the country, you talk about rain. And crops. Which is interesting isn’t it.

I used to have this idea that when I shared my Christian faith, there was like this single, simple gospel message that I needed to get across. I used to get quite stressed, that I might forget it, or get the order mixed up, or say the wrong thing.

Acts is actually full of people sharing their Christian faith. Over half the book is actually speeches. 26 in total if you don’t believe me and want to go and count.

If we had time, if this was a class at Uniting College, I’d get you to put them side by side. How do the speeches start? What were the connection points? What was the conclusion?

And together we’d find that each speech is totally different. That when you talk to Jews, who know the Bible, quote the Old Testament. That when you talk to farmers, the talk about rain. When you meet philosopher townies, quote some poets.

So there’s no one simple way to share your faith. Instead we have this appreciation that God is in the world around us.

We just need to take the time to wander, to go God prospecting, to have the eyes to see.

It’s not just Paul. It’s not just the Bible book of Acts. In 1962 a young man called Don Richardson took his wife, Carol and their seven month old baby and went to live in the highlands of West Papua New Guinea. Among a people rumoured to be canibals, called the Sawi people.

In their new home, the only white fella’s, the Richardsons set about learning the local language. Which wasn’t easy. The Sawi language has 19 tenses for every verb.
As they learnt the language and lived with the people, they became more aware of this big gulf that separated their Christian worldview from the worldview of the Sawi people. The first time they shared the story of the Last Supper, the Sawi decided to follow Judas.
Because to betray people was something they valued highly in their culture. So Judas, not Jesus, was the hero.

So Don and Carol go through culture shock and find themselves lost and confused. Tempted to compare the worst bits of the Sawi culture with the best bits of their culture back home.
Thankfully Don get listening. Kept God-prospecting, kept looking carefully.

He discovered that in Sawi culture, there is a Peace Child. They had this ceremony in which in order to bring peace between warring villages, young children would be exchanged, as a Peace child. One day Don saw a man run toward his enemy’s house and literally gave his son to one of his enemies.

Don began to wonder if the peace child was their alter to the Unknown God. That to stop humans fighting with each other, God in Jesus gives us a peace child.

When they heard this, many villagers decided they wanted to follow Jesus the Peace Child. They converted to Christianity, began to live in peace with this peace child and with each other.

Simply because Don Richardson believed that God was already in the Sawi world. If he just took the time to look.
So, this week, why not try and make this Bible text practical today.

Take time to walk around your local park. Is God here? What can you see that can feed the spiritual journey?

Then, take a time to walk around a shopping centre. Is God there? What can you see that can feed the spiritual journey?

I thought I should practise what I preach …

This is a billboard hanging on the pub closest to my work.

When I looked, I was suprised to find a commercial billboard, on a main road, in which God is named. In which to understand you need to know the creation story, Genesis 1, made in 7 days. And while I’m not convinced that alcohol represents the fullness of heaven, I love the suggestion that as part of God making us, God wants us to relax and enjoy life. That billboard, almost an altar to the unknown God on a main road in Adelaide.

This is a mat on the ground floor of a central city business. It was the word “devine” that caught my attention. I checked the spelling. It was wrong.

But I love the tag line – “Welcome. Find your ideal place.” Isn’t that what Christianity is about? A faith of welcome. An invitation not to be forced into a cookie cutter, but to find our unique and special place. Reminded me of that fact that each of us have our own unique fingerprint and so the task of spiritual growth is to grow into what each of us are truely, uniquely, meant to be. Another altar to the unknown God – God’s “devine” grace as “Welcome. Find your ideal place.”
So we started with Paul in Athens. Taking the time to wander. To look. And discovering that in this highly intelligent, sophisticated, place of decision and debate, that God was already there. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

And I compared that to a different sermon, to a more rural place in Acts 14. Once again, God was already there, not only in poets and philosophers, but in rain and harvest. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

Which I linked with a missionary story. Of the Richardsons in West Papua New Guinea taking the time to look, and finding a peace child. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

So this week, would you look with me. Go God-prospecting in the everyday world in which you find yourself.

Posted by steve at 08:57 AM

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