Immanuel Lutheran Church
                     of Almelund, Minnesota


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Knowing the Unknown God

Pastor Marla Amborn

Immanuel Lutheran Church

April 29, 2018

Acts 17: 16-31


Have you ever seen an idol? I’m not talking Carrie Underwood or American Idol. I mean a real idol – a statue made of stone or wood, carved by human hands, that people worship. It is not something most of us encounter very often, if at all. But one place you can see actual idols is at the Hindu Society of Minnesota, in Maple Grove.


I had the opportunity to visit it while I was in seminary and found it fascinating. Within the large temple there are 21 shrines to 21 different idols. Each idol has its own little hut that houses it. People visit the hut, pray to the idol, and leave offerings to the idol. Different idols are believed to be responsible for different things. You go to one idol for healing of illness, another for help in your love life, and yet another for help in your financial affairs.


The thing that really struck me as odd is that these idols do not just represent gods, they are treated as if they actually are gods. It was unsettling to see these objects made by human hands revered as gods, especially after we were taken behind the scenes and saw the carvers at work. When you see a partially carved idol it seems especially strange that anybody would worship it.


I imagine that Paul felt unsettled like I did as he walked around Athens and saw a city filled with idols. The people of Athens were very religious. They believed in many gods. But with so many gods, how do you know when you’ve got them all covered? The people of Athens didn’t want to miss any god, so they created a statue to the unknown god – to cover their bases.


We generally think faith is a good thing. But the object of your faith matters. What good does it do to put your faith in a piece of carved stone? None! A piece of carved stone can’t love you or do anything for you. Only the one true God can answer our prayers. Only the one true God who created us and loves us is worthy of our devotion. Worshipping idols is a waste of time. Worse yet, it is an insult to the one true God.


Although we don’t see carved idols as we walk around our towns today, we do see people worshipping idols. Probably the biggest idol is money. People spend their lives working for money, trying to accumulate as much money as possible, trusting money to save them. Those who put their faith in money will inevitably be disappointed. Money is of little comfort when you are face-to-face with death. We all know you can’t take it with you.


To illustrate, I want to share a little story with you. An old miser, had no friends nor family. Just before he died he called his doctor, his lawyer, and a minister to come see him. They gathered together around his bed.


"I always heard you can't take it with you,” he said, “but I am going to prove you can. I have $90,000 cash hidden underneath my mattress. It's in 3 envelopes of $30,000 each. I want each one of you to grab one envelope now and just before they throw the dirt on my grave, you throw the envelopes in."


Weeks later, the three attended the funeral, and true to their word, each threw their envelope into the grave. On the way back from the cemetery, the minister said, "I don't feel so good about this. I am going to confess. I desperately needed $10,000 for the new church we are building, so I took out $10,000 and threw only $20,000 in the grave."


The doctor said, "I, too, must confess. I am building a clinic and took $20,000 and threw in only $10,000." He looked ashamed.


The lawyer said, "Gentlemen, I'm surprised, shocked and ashamed of both of you. I don't see how you could in good conscience hold onto that money. I threw in a personal check for the entire amount."


Leave it to the attorney to come up with such a loop hole! We’d all like to take it with us, but we can’t.


Another idol people worship in our culture is success – it may be success in their career, in sports, or playing video games! People spend countless hours investing their time and talents into things that they hope will give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. But success is elusive. Even those who make it to the top often find that it is not all that they had hoped for. Another person may quickly take the spot they worked so hard to achieve. People find themselves wondering “Is that all there is?” They look back on their life, think about all they have sacrificed, often to find that it wasn’t worth it.


The worst form of idolatry is when people end up worshipping truly destructive idols through addictions to gambling, drugs, or alcohol. People give up everything for these idols. They may give up their families, their jobs, their health. As they live their lives for these false gods, their lives fall apart. They find themselves addicted and lonely, with their lives in shambles.


People today are searching for meaning in life. But they are not sure where to look for it. They look to idols of many kinds but fewer people are looking in the right place. Just as Paul faced a city filled with idols, so too do we today. We don’t see statues of false gods everywhere, but false gods are as rampant in our culture as they were in First Century Athens. The approach Paul took in talking with the people of Athens offers a model that we can find helpful today.


Paul could have told them what fools the were for worshipping bits of carved wood or metal, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked for an opening where they might be receptive to his message. He watched, he listened, he noticed. He realized that there was a deep yearning for meaning and hope. He spoke to that need for meaning and hope, but he didn’t do so in an obnoxious way. He didn’t scold people or make them uncomfortable. Rather he praised them for what they were doing right. He praised them for being very religious and let them know he had something they were looking for – the identity of the unknown god. Paul spoke from his own experience about who this God is, and what a difference that God makes. He didn’t quote scripture to them, which might have turned them off. Instead, he entered the culture they were familiar with and quoted their own poets to make his point. He offered the resurrection as proof that this God has real power. And some believed.


Scriptures tell us that not everyone who heard his message believed in God, but some did. The Holy Spirit works through people to reach out to one another. The result of Paul’s witness was not up to Paul but up to the Holy Spirit.


Many of us recognize that people around us are searching for meaning, but they are looking in the wrong places. We’d like to share with them about the faith that gives our lives meaning, but we’re afraid. We haven’t had much experience talking about our faith so we’re not sure what to say. We’re afraid that talking about our faith might push people away.


Do what Paul did. Look for an opening. It may be when people are experiencing life challenges. Praise them for what they are doing right. Speak from your own experience. Let them know that at hard times in your life, your faith has seen you through. Let them know the sense of peace and joy that comes from knowing that God loves you and from knowing that God is working for your good. Offer to pray for them – and actually pray for them while you are with them. Few people turn down the offer for a prayer. Invite them to come with you to church. Not everyone will say yes, but some will. The Holy Spirit will work through you and work in their hearts to bring people to faith.


Last week, two new members joined Immanuel. They were invited by family members and neighbors to come to church. When they came to worship, those who invited them sat with them. They introduced them to people and helped them feel welcome.


Each time they come, they hear the good news preached. They participate in the sacraments. They are surrounded by other Christians who care for them and for one another.


The God they find here is not some useless idol. The God they find here is the God who created the universe, the God who loved them from before they were born, the God who sacrificed his own son for their salvation, the God who will one day bring them home to be with him through all eternity.


The God they find here, is embodied in the people they find here. People, who in the last few weeks, raised $2200 to help a family in need. Lynn Schultz and I met with this family yesterday and told them about this generous gift. They were so grateful. This family has really struggled. But things are starting to get better for them. Knowing that God’s people at Immanuel are helping them in this way is a real sign of hope for them, a sign of the power of faith in action.


As Christians, we are called to share our faith in word and deed. Helping this family in need is an example of sharing our faith through our deeds – and that is a powerful witness. It is made even more powerful because the family knows that the reason people donated this money to help them is because of their faith. When our words and our actions go together, people recognize that the faith we profess is real and it points to a God who is real.


Our society is drifting farther and farther away from God. People are hungry for the God they don’t know, the God you and I do know. Tell them! Like Paul did, tell them who that unknown God is. Introduce them to the God of our salvation. When your words and your actions both point to God, people see the power in your witness.


We are the body of Christ. We are the people charged with making disciples for Christ in this time and place. We are to share our faith in word and deed.


I’d like to share with you this poem by Teresa of Avila:


Christ has no body now on earth but yours;

no hands but yours; no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ

must look out on the world.

Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.

Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.


I would add to that

“Yours is the voice with which he shares the message of God’s love and salvation.”


For all those playing with idols, for all those seeking meaning in life in places that will only disappoint, for all those looking to find the unknown God, introduce them to the God you know. Introduce them to Jesus. Express your faith in word and deed so that through your witness others may come to know the one true God.


May God open your eyes to the opportunities to share your faith with others, open your lips with words salvation, and open your heart with acts of love. Amen!