When the Apostle Paul arrived in Athens he caught the attention of the local brain trust. As was his habit, on arriving he sought out the synagogue to proclaim first to the Jews that their Messiah had come, died, and defeated death itself. But his spirit was troubled in that great city (Acts 17:16).
When he gained an audience with the local think-tank, he politely but persuasively floated the idea that they were not thinking straight. Paul pointed out to them that they were “hung up” on lesser gods, that their thinking was flawed and incomplete. How did he know this? By looking around him. The city was festooned with statues and images of what the Athenians chose to worship.
We human creatures consistently tip our hand this way. We like to visualise what we worship. Conversely when we worship something, we like to see it. So join me as we take a leisurely stroll through our own Athens. Imagine yourself to be Paul, eyes wide open for clues, taking notes and drawing conclusions about what we worship today. We worship sex, or at least the airbrushed, Hollywood version. We worship food in all its exotic forms and varieties. We pay (and pay, and pay) homage to the technology god, even though he is obsolete-out-of-the-box. We devote ourselves to adrenaline and its production – if it isn’t exciting, it isn’t worth doing. We bow down at the altar of amusement. Shrines to these lesser gods are everywhere as far as the eye can see. We are as hung up as the Athenians were.
That was always man’s problem with the One True God. We can’t see Him. The Israelites, fresh out of Egypt, knew His power and experienced His blessing. So what do they do? Make a golden calf to worship! Something they can see.
Now I am not arguing for a ban on the visual arts, any more than I am suggesting we stop using computers (no matter how infuriating they can be). But like the Athenians, I think we have too often settled for second-rate gods. Whatever inspires us, we will attempt to make visible. Judging by the visual content of most hoardings and billboards, we are inspired by tawdry baubles and cheap thrills.
Now before this starts to sound like the ranting of an old fuddy-duddy in a Monty Python sketch, come with me to Philippians 4:8. Paul – the same Paul who challenged the thinking of the Athenian brain trust – likewise challenges us in the way we apply our minds today. Paul would have us steer our thoughts towards whatever is “true, honourable, right, wholesome, pleasant, of good reputation, excellent and commendable.” When we focus on such things, our minds are much more likely to be drawn on to their source – the true God of creation. And this of course leads us into the right kind of worship. We cannot see Him, but we can dwell upon His nature, and acknowledge the things He has done.
So when we encounter the truth, our heart should give thanks to God that not all is twisted and perverse and subject to “spin.” When honour, duty and dignity are found, praise God that such things are not dead. When righteousness and justice prevail, make a mental note that such things are a divine breath of fresh air in the smog of a devious and selfish world. When you stumble upon some enterprise that doesn’t need to push the bounds of decency just to make a name, pause and thank God for them.
He was the “unknown god” to the men of Athens. In his opening remarks Paul drew their attention to an empty plinth to a god they hadn’t yet imagined. Occupying other plinths would have been statues of the many figures that made up their pantheon. Paul could have looked and pointed to each one and said something along the lines of “See here Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of your gods. You claim their authority over the sky and the heavens, but my God made the sky and heavens. Or look here to Apollo and Artemis, your gods of the sun and moon – better to worship the One who created the sun and the moon.”
He is the unseeable God who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them He alone is worthy of our worship.