Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Easter

Text: Acts 17:16-18
While Paul was waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy, he was greatly upset when he noticed how full of idols the city was. So he held discussions in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentiles who worshiped God, and also in the public square every day with the people who happened to come by. Certain Epicurean and Stoic teachers also debated with him. Some of them asked, "What is this ignorant show-off trying to say?" Others answered, "He seems to be talking about foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching about Jesus and the resurrection.

Windows of opportunity

It was a beautiful afternoon in the Santa Ana Mountains when Susan Small and her five-year-old daughter Laura, wandered down to a pond to watch tadpoles dart around the murky water.

Suddenly a mountain lion sprang from among the bushes and pounced on Laura, knocking her down, grabbing her head in its mouth, and dragging her away into the thick underbrush. The whole thing was over in a flash.

About two hundred metres away, a hiker named Greg Ysais heard the cry and came running. Without hesitating, he plunged through the bushes in search for the child Ė and instantly came face-to-face with the growling mountain lion, which was holding little Laura in his jaws.

Greg had to think quickly. He tore a small limb from a dead tree and advanced toward the animal, yelling and trying to poke it in the eye. The mountain lion growled and swatted at him. For several tense moments, there was a stand-off. Would the enraged lion rip Laura apart? Would it lunge for Greg?

Slowly the animal loosened its grip on the child, and her limp body dropped to the ground. It looked as if the lion was going to attack Greg, but he kept fending it off with the branch. Finally the lion turned and fled into the bushes, and Mrs. Small rushed over and to pick up her child, who was injured but still alive. Gregory Ysais, a thirty-six-year-old electronics technician, was hailed a hero. (1)

What qualities does Greg Ysais share with other heroes we read about in the newspaper Ė the ones we read about saving children from burning buildings, rescuing motorists from mangled cars, venturing into rips to rescue drowning swimmers, fighting off crocodiles and sharks attacking another person?

Mostly they are ordinary people who came along at the critical moment. They didnít have any special rescue training or skills. At the critical moment, they made an extraordinary decision to rescue someone whose life was in danger. In most cases, they put their own lives at risk.

There are times in our lives when we make a decision whether to come to a personís rescue, or to walk away and pretend the moment didnít exist when we could have done something to help. We are faced with a spur of the moment decision shall I do something now, or hope that someone else will come along.

We heard about the apostle Paul today in the city of Athens. This Greek city was an intellectual centre of its day. Here the philosophers, intellectuals, and students would gather to discuss the latest intellectual fads. Athens was also a pagan city. As many as 30,000 statues had been erected as idols to various gods in the city. The Greek historian Pausanias says that there were more idols in Athens than in all the rest of Greece combined. There can be no doubt that the Greeks were religious people. They had a different god for almost every aspect of life. They believed their gods were able to bring fortune or evil. They had even built and dedicated an altar ĎTo an Unknown Godí just in case they may have missed giving honour to one of the gods.

It would have been easy for Paul to shy away from even opening his mouth in this pagan city. We would understand that. But Luke records, "He (Paul) held discussions in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentiles who worshiped God, and also in the public square every day with the people who happened to come by. Certain Epicurean and Stoic teachers also debated with him" (Acts 17:17,18). In amongst all those pagan statues, he debated with the great teachers of Athens. This was tough going. It was even dangerous. Paul knew that if he was going to rescue anyone, he had to step out of his comfort zone, and put himself at risk to speak the truth in the same way that Greg Ysais put himself at risk to rescue the little girl.

Letís face it Ė itís easy to hang around with Christians. We worship the same God, we share the same values, and we speak the same language (that is, we all know what we mean when we talk about redemption, Holy Communion, Ďthe Districtí or the LCA). We donít blister one anotherís ears with foul language and dirty stories. Itís natural for us to gravitate toward people who are more like ourselves.

Paul had a lot to do with his Christian friends and the congregations that were scattered around in most of the large towns and cities. When he was in Athens, we notice that Paul first of all had deep discussions with both Jews and Gentiles who worshipped God.

Itís worth noting how Paul intentionally stepped out of his comfort zone to share the Good News with those who were caught up in pagan ways. Notice I said they were intentional Ė they deliberately made a decision to make the most of the moment. To hesitate, to stall, to put it off, would mean a lost opportunity. Think what would have happened if that young hiker had stalled when he saw how much danger the little girl was in and said to himself, "Iíll wait for a while and see what happens". Maybe you, like me, have let a decisive moment go by and afterwards regretted not saying or doing something when we had the chance.

We need to be especially deliberate when it comes to talking about Jesus to unbelievers or those who have fallen away. Like Jesus at the well and Paul in Athens we need to be deliberate about connecting with those who are not part of the Kingdom of God. Of course, there are risks Ė being ridiculed, being called a religious freak, having your feelings hurt, but as is often the case when someone needs rescuing, there are risks and dangers. If we are not deliberate then we can easily lose a golden opportunity to speak God's truth when it was needed the most.

Mostly before we can talk to anyone about God, we need have a relationship with that person. Iím not talking about a relationship that spans over 5 or 10 years. When Jesus met the women at the well he first asked for a drink of water, started up conversation with her and showed that he accepted her in spite of her morality. When Paul started speaking to the council, the Areopagus, he didnít launch into an explanation of how to be saved, he first established a relationship with his listeners. He flattered them noting that the Athenians were very religious people. He referred to their altar with the inscription ĎTo an Unknown Godí saying, "You have been worshiping him without knowing who he is, and now I wish to tell you about him" (17:28). This would have got the interest of the Greek teachers because they were keen to know more about the ĎUnknown Godí.

So Paul talks about God. He says,
God made the world, and since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesnít need a temple to live in.
God gives life and breath to all living creatures.
God created all the people of the world and gave them countries to live in.
God is above all things and doesnít have any particular needs that can be satisfied by humans.
God is not far away from any of us and wants people to seek him.
Then Paul cleverly quotes from two Greek poets describing the relationship of God to humanity.

Can you see what Paul has done here? He hasnít hit them over the head with a whole lot of ĎJesus talkí. He has said very little that the learned teachers of Athens would disagree with. He has built a relationship with them. They are listening. They are agreeing. He knows that you canít come in cold and expect people to listen to the important message he has to tell them. He first built a rapport with them.

There are lots of people in our lives that we have never taken the time to get to know. While out walking, we can stop to talk to the new neighbour who is washing his car, or we can stroll on by. We can linger around after church and talk to people we hardly know, or the stranger who is visiting for the first time, or we can ignore them. Who knows what opportunities might arise in your conversation to share your faith, or how you can help when a crisis arises and they come seeking your help.

Once a daughter and her elderly mother came seeking help in their time of grief. Someone had taken the time to welcome them and spend a little time with them in a Lutheran Church in the USA when they were holidaying there. A relationship had been created and they were open to hearing the good news about Jesus. They became regular and faithful worshippers. Some unknown person had taken the time to get to know them.

Even though Paul was surrounded by pagan statues of the Greek gods, and confronted by some very clever people, nevertheless Paul put his fears aside and deliberately grasped the moment. He established a relationship with the very clever teachers of Athens; he then goes on to tell them about Jesus.

If someone is going to be rescued then there comes a point when we have to bite the bullet and point out that Christ is our only hope for rescue. If Paul had stopped after talking about God on a more general level, the Athenians would have been none the wiser about the Christian faith. And so he started to tell them that God is not made of wood or stone but he is a God who wants to have a relationship with all people. He began to tell them about Jesus - the one whom God had raised from the dead.

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he took advantage of the circumstances and starting to talk about Ďliving waterí and got into matters relating to her eternal welfare.

Itís at this point that most of us are tripped up. Weíre not sure how to turn an everyday conversation to spiritual matters in a natural way. Itís at this point that we lose the moment. There is a window of opportunity to talk about your faith Ė if you donít make a quick decision and take it, it will be lost. A man once said, "Last week I visited the neighbour in hospital. She wasnít a Christian, and while I was there talking to her, I could have easily brought up spiritual matters. I mean, the door was open several times. But I played it safe. When I got home I was so angry with myself that I decided Iíd go back in a couple of days and take the risk. But then I got a phone call; it turned out she had died." (2)

Just Greg Ysais only had a split second to decide whether to help the little girl caught in the lionís jaws, likewise when we are faced with a decision to speak out or not, we have only got a moment to decide. We need to take a deep breath and trust God. God may use that moment to make a whole lot of difference in the life of that person.

We are told that after his conversation with the woman at the well, many believed in Jesus. Paul on the other hand was cut short and was ridiculed for believing that a man returned from the dead. Only a small handful believed the gospel message. Thatís the risk we take, but even if that person only starts to think more deeply about spiritual matters, then it has been worthwhile.

We confess that there are too many times when we have missed the opportunity to speak about our faith. We have shied away, too scared to say anything, unwilling to take a risk.
We confess we have lost the sense of urgency to tell others about Jesus and failed to invite others to the place where they can hear the Gospel.
Thank God for the good news about forgiveness for failures.
May God give us the courage and the wisdom through the Holy Spirit to seize the moment and speak clearly and appropriately about Jesus who gives life and salvation.
Let God guide us as we make use of those small windows of opportunity.

(1)        Lee Strobel, Inside the mind of unchurched Harry and Mary, pp 82,83, Zondervan 1993
(2)        Lee Strobel
p 93

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
1st May, 2005

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