Text: Acts 17:22-31
I imagine that it won’t surprise any of you to hear me say that Oprah Winfrey is one of my heroes. Like many, for the past 25 years, I have admired her compassionate, yet firm way of speaking truth on important societal issues—many of which were justice issues. In 1986, when she began the Oprah Winfrey Show, I was a first year seminary student. There were several of us who would try to arrange our class schedules so that we could gather each afternoon to watch her show. What drew me to the Oprah show then, and what kept me watching over the years, was this amazing gift that she had for getting to the heart of issues in a way that brought meaning and truth with an incredible sense of compassion and grace.
Since seminary, I have not been able to watch as much Oprah as I would have liked. The duties of adulthood took priority. But I was aware that on this past Wednesday the final episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show would air. And as much as I wanted to watch it, I knew I couldn’t skip my 4:00 appointment to watch Oprah. That evening, though, thanks to modern technology, I watched and listened as Oprah said good-bye to her viewers and shared what she had learned over the past 25 years of interviewing her guests. I would rank her reflections as one of the best sermons I have ever heard—theologically sound, redemptive, and inspiring. She reminded her viewers of these truths:
1. That every single person wants the same thing—for someone to see them, hear them, and for what they feel and think to matter to someone else. On this principle, she noted that she had been able to hold the microphone for all kinds of people to tell their story.
2. That we are enough just as we are and that as God’s beloved we are worthy of goodness and joy.
3. That the energy we send out into the world is the energy that comes back to us—her version of the Golden Rule.
But in the end, it was her affirmation of faith in God that caught my attention. She said:
When all of you get riled up when I mention God and you want to know which God I’m talking about—I’m talking about the same one you’re talking about. I’m talking about the alpha and omega. The omniscient, omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is. The one and only G-O-D. That’s the one I’m talking about. I know I’ve never been alone. And I know you haven’t either. And I know that that presence, that flow—some people call it grace—is working in my life at every single turn; and yours too if you let it in. It’s closer than your breath. And it is yours for the asking.
I have felt the presence of God my whole life even when I didn’t have a name for it. I could feel the voice bigger than myself speaking to me. And all of us have that same voice. Be still and know it. You can acknowledge it or not. You can worship it or not. You can praise it; you can ignore it; or you can know it. It’s always speaking to you and waiting for you to hear it. In every move and every decision I wait and I listen. I’m still. I wait and listen for the guidance that is greater than my meager mind.”
In her final episode, the queen of daytime TV reflected on the question at the heart of our biblical text—can we know God? Much like Paul standing before the council at Areopagus, she described her own “knowing” of God.
Shifting from Oprah to Paul, let me set the context for our text this morning. Paul is making an unexpected visit to Athens. His proclamation of Christ crucified had angered the Jews at Thessalonica so much that they had followed him to Beroea to incite riots in the crowds there. Rather than risk Paul’s safety, the Beroean believers had sent him off to Athens. While he waits for his colleagues to join him in there, Paul takes in the sights, tours the city, and tries to learn something about its people. When he finds city shrines and altars dedicated to a variety of idols, he debates their existence wherever and with whomever he can: in the synagogue with the Jews, in the marketplace with the buyers and sellers, in the town center with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.
In this last location, the Areopagus, Paul gives his only speech in Acts to an entirely pagan audience. It is important for us to keep in mind that Paul is speaking in the literary capital of the ancient world, the most cultured city of the earth to which every Roman who sought a finished education aspired to complete their studies, the home of the philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters, and poets, and the great university where many thousands of strangers were gathered for study. There he appeals to their religiosity and then tells them that their worship of graven images is a misguided search for the divine. Paul recognized quickly that the Athenians, whose altar is dedicated “to an unknown god,” are trying to cover all the bases. If the gods of their other altars or shrines fail them, perhaps an “as-yet-unnamed” deity will look favorably upon them. This “cover all the bases” approach (or as our younger generation would say, “CYA approach”) to knowing God incites Paul to give one of the most moving and profound statements about “knowing God” in the biblical text.
Listen again to his words, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, this one who is the God of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.”
As I read Paul and listened to Oprah, I began wondering what I would say about knowing God. I tried to put myself in Paul’s shoes and I imagined standing before a panel of scholars and philosophers and poets who top my list of being some of the smartest and wisest people to live in the last century and a half—people like Ghandi, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Sojourner Truth, Rilke, Mary Oliver, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Before them what would I say about knowing God? Like the Athenians, would I tip my hat to the “unknown God” so as to cover all my bases? Would I focus on the idol of intellect, quoting what I have read about God? Or would I focus on the idol of personal experience and miss the vastness of a universal God?
Like him or not, Paul challenges us to finish the sentence: “This I proclaim to you…” And so, as a statement of my faith and an attempt to respond to the question, “Can we know God?” this I proclaim to you:
In the darkest, loneliness places of my life there is a presence that sustains me, offers me comfort, and reassures me.
Through all of life, there is a Spirit of joy that surrounds me and calls to me even in the midst of confusion and chaos.
When I feel lost and uncertain of where my life is going or what I need to be doing, I can hear a voice calling to me saying, “I have called you by name and you are mine. You are beloved. You are worthy.”
When the powers and principalities of this world seem to prevail, when evil raises its ugly head, there is a presence of goodness that remains steadfast.
This I proclaim to you, love still feels stronger than hate. In this world, I see more light than darkness; more hope than despair; more forgiveness than judgment; and more grace than vengeance.
This I proclaim to you, the God I know is both personal and transcendent. God is not a personal God granting wishes if we are good; nor is God unmoved and unconcerned about the struggles of real people in particular places.
God is love and I know God is real when I look into your faces and when I consider the beauty of this life and of my life.
What if we took Paul’s advice to look for the God who is not far away, but actually close by? What if our inward looking led us to see the places in our souls where God has already been at work, stirring in us the desire for meaning? What if our outward searching led us to see the places where God has already been at work in the world? Could we then answer “yes” to the question, “Can we know God?” Would we proclaim unapologetically: The God who made the world and everything in it…God [who] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…is indeed not far from each one of us.”
Be still and know. Wait and listen for the guidance that is greater than our meager minds, even if you can’t put a name to it. It is closer than your breath.