May 7, 2023
One of your altars had this inscription on it: To an Unknown God. This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
—Acts 17:23 (NLT)
I talk so much that I assume not only that everybody has heard everything I’ve had to say, but that they also remember it. But, of course, that’s not true. I’m neither that eloquent nor that interesting. So here’s something maybe you don’t remember. I went to college at the University of Louisville, where I got a degree in German. During my junior year, I spent a semester working in Germany at a winery on the Rhine River.
While I was there, I remember specifically telling a German coworker just how ridiculously difficult their language was for a foreigner. For instance—especially in the early stages—any time I had to say the word the in German, I had to go through sixteen different possibilities, because their word for the changes according to gender, number, and case. Of course the more you get used to it, the more it becomes automatic. But that doesn’t make it easy.
English grammar, on the other hand, really is easy. We don’t have grammatical gender. This means that a table is an it, not a he; and butter is an it, not a she. Also I don’t have to worry about anything about either of those words changing depending on how it’s used in a sentence. That’s because English is easy.
Except for one thing, one impossible thing—a thing that everybody here knows very well, something that you use hundreds of times a day, but that people who are learning English find utterly impossible. When I tell you what this thing is, you might not even know what I’m talking about. That’s because, though you know this thing like the back of your hand, it’s not something you’ve ever had to learn, and so you may not know what it’s called.
This thing, of course, is the phrasal verb. I’m looking at a lot of blank faces. Maybe some of you teachers know what I’m talking about. But most of you will probably deny knowing much about phrasal verbs, let alone using them constantly. But a phrasal verb is just a verb that consists of multiple words—usually a common verb plus a preposition that changes its meaning completely. Let, for instance, usually means something like allow. But what happens when you tell a driver to let up on the gas, or you take your trousers to the tailor to be let out, or when somebody lets you down?
What about put, put down, put off, put up, or even put up with? And then there’s get. Think of all the words you can add to get to completely change its meaning: get off the bus, get on with your day, get along with your neighbor, get over an old relationship… and the list goes on (to go on is another phrasal verb, by the way). You probably can’t speak two sentences without using a phrasal verb. You know hundreds—maybe thousands—of them. And a lot of you didn’t even know that this was something you knew. Non-native English-speakers would eat their heart out.
Here's another one. It’s something you know, but I bet nobody here knows you know it. And when I mention it, you’re going to think I’m crazy. You’ll deny knowing it, but deep down, you know it’s true.
So what’s this untrue thing that you know is actually true? It’s that you can’t feel wet. Human skin has no receptors for wetness. We can feel hot or cold or we can feel slippery. But we can’t feel wet.
Think about this. How many times have you gone into your laundry room to get clothes out of the dryer, and you can’t actually tell if they’re completely dry. It kinda drives me crazy because my laundry room tends to be colder than the rest of the house. And when I pull clothes out of the dryer, I often can’t tell if they’re damp or just cold. I know I can’t be the only one. I think I can feel wetness, but I can’t. The same thing happens when I stick my finger in a cup of lukewarm liquid. You’d think I’d immediately feel wet. But if there’s no temperature change, I feel nothing. That’s because, once again, human skin has no receptors for wetness. Some animals do, but we don’t.
This brings us to the Bible—specifically to the Book of Acts. Most of us remember that the Apostle Paul traveled quite a bit, and in today’s reading, his travels took him to Athens. We probably all know a little bit about their religion. We had to learn about Greek gods in high school or maybe college. So Paul knew that if he just started in talking about how Jesus fulfilled the promises of the God of Israel, he’d probably lose the Athenians from the get-go—that just wasn’t part of their religious experience.
But as Paul was making his way to the place where he intended to share his message, he noticed something: It was a shrine that showed that the Athenians already knew something, but they didn’t know they knew it. The shrine was dedicated To An Unknown God, and Paul had arrived on the scene to tell them who that God was: It was the God he was there to tell them about.
This God that you call Unknown is the God behind and above all other gods, he told them. This Unknown God is the One who created everything. This God is the One who gives each of us life. It is this God who is behind every breath we take and every movement we make.
Back then, each nation had its own gods, and the Greeks were well aware that their gods were unique to them, that Rome had its own set of gods—so did the Persians and the Egyptians and the Celts and every other nation they had encountered. But here was Paul telling them that the God whom they worshiped but thought of as Unknown—the God they didn’t even know they knew—was the God that all people had in common. This was the God that made each nation and each individual in each nation, the God that set up the world as they knew it and was still intimately involved in each of their lives.
Now Paul was expecting the return of the Lord on any day—indeed, at any second. His message to them was one of repentance. But I want to stop here for a second and ask us to think about how Paul’s message up to this point might change our world. We love our differences. And the world we live in tends to amplify those differences. Whether it’s language or custom, the clothes we wear or the food we eat, the color of our skin or our religious beliefs, we seem to be pitted against each other.
But behind it all, there is something very important that we all have in common. We are children of the same God, and we were not placed on this earth to hate what we don’t understand. I guess if I had to describe what was different about our church, I’d have to say that it’s that we actually admit this. We worship the God we know and love. But we also admit that there is much about God that we don’t know, that we don’t understand. And it’s that area of the Unknown where we’re able to find common ground with people we don’t necessarily agree with.
Not everybody likes this about us. Three times in recent years, I have had people quit my church in anger when they discovered that we believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. It’s happened twice here and once at another church. And each time it was a rather traumatic experience for me. Not that somebody left who disagreed with the church—that happens all the time. But that people are so willing to divide themselves from their neighbors.
What we know about the Unknown God that Paul revealed to the Athenians is what we have learned from Jesus—that God is love, and that God’s love for us is deeper and broader than anything we can imagine. There is still much about this God that we don’t know, but we know that there is no room in God for hatred, and that we must not use God as an excuse to despise our neighbor.
As we gather around the table this morning, let us be thankful that God loved us so much that God sent Jesus to teach us about love, and let us arise with a renewed commitment to see Christ in one another, to love our neighbor, and to refuse to condemn that which we don’t understand.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.