The last couple of weeks have been full of new sights and sounds and experiences, as six of us Colemans sailed the eastern Mediterranean and discovered history, geography and religion, as well as having some great family time on the cruise ship. Despite my best efforts, church attendance turned out not to be a realistic option. The only service offered on board was a video of Joel Osteen that coincided with our prearranged trips on shore. Although Sabbath worship is a priority for me, even when on holiday, my journey with a spiritual director in recent years has helped me discover how God is present in even the most mundane of experiences, and that I can engage in worship in many contexts other than Sunday church. So I was on the lookout for “glimpses of glory” - times and places when I was reminded of God’s presence and could express my gratitude and faith individually rather than in a corporate worship experience. I noticed three particular "God moments"; here is the first.
One of our most memorable travel experiences has to be visiting the Acropolis in Athens - first time for all of us. People had warned me about the many steps up the hill and but in fact it was quite achievable even for four year old Nathan. Our organisers had timed our visit for the early part of the morning to avoid the crowds, but it was still extremely busy and the many tour groups slowed down our progress to the top. We were grateful to have Francesca explain on personal audio about the amazing architecture, and the visual tricks the designers had used to make the place look perfectly symmetrical. When she mentioned Mars Hill, my ears pricked up. Students of the Bible will know that this place is mentioned in the book of Acts, as the site of a very famous sermon by the apostle Paul. There in the Areopagus of Athens, he preached not to the Jews, as he usually did, but to the pagans, the Greek philosophers gathered to debate in that city square. At least I have always thought of it as a square, but in fact it is a hill, a steep hill, one that took considerably more effort to climb than the Acropolis itself. In classical times the hill was the seat of civil and criminal justice in Athens, but that was later moved to the agora or marketplace. In Luke’s record Paul seems to start in the agora and then be led up the hill for further discussion, which is when he takes as his illustration their Altar “to an unknown God”.
The background to the sermon is that Paul was distressed to see Athens full of idols, and went to the synagogue and the marketplace to preach against idolatry. Some Greeks asked him to explain himself further, and so he turned their thoughts from the huge gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon above them, to the altar he had seen.
|Viv on Mars Hill in Athens|
"As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you." Acts 17: 16 - 34He introduces them to the story of Jesus as a way of knowing this unknown god, and explained the resurrection and the meaning of Christ. I recalled how I first heard about this sermon in 1969, in a lecture at Auckland University by EM Blaiklock, the respected Kiwi Classics scholar, who very capably explained how Paul was using the local religious context as the starting point for his apologetic - a good pattern for any preacher. Blaiklock seemed to say that the sermon was a failure, in that the philosophers were not convinced, and I took his word for it; it was not till I listened to the Alpha talk on this passage that I realised that was not entirely corrct. Although some scoffed, some asked to learn more, and others became followers of Jesus, a woman named Damaris, and Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus. In any case, I reflected up on that ancient hill, preachers then and now must come to terms with the reality that response can be absent or invisible, even when the sermon has been faithfully preached. We don’t measure the effectiveness of God’s word by the number who respond to an altar call. The sermons of Paul and others had a lasting effect; Greece today is a predominantly Christian society.
Next post will look at my visit to the Greek island of Crete.