As always it’s a joy to be with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And there’s one thing I want you to know — and this is true if you’re worshiping with us for the first time or are joining us at our North Main Campus — I want you to know that God loves you and that I love you too.
We’re continuing in the book of Acts today. The apostle Paul has traveled a few hundred miles by sea from the city of Berea — where we were last week — to Athens. Athens — at this point in history — was past its prime — that was about 500 years earlier — but it was still a city with a lot of influence in the world. It was the intellectual center of the known world. And — as you heard as our text was read — it was a city full of idols. Statues and altars devoted to various gods, military soldiers, and even athletes were everywhere in the city. (Mark Golden, “The Position of the Athlete in the Social Structure of Ancient Greece,” https://thesportjournal.org/article/the-position-of-the-athlete-in-the-social-structure-of-ancient-greece/)
One person has written, “It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together, and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man.” (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews, 1962), 141.) If you visit Athens today you’ll see statutes of idols similar to what Paul sees in our verses. The main difference being that today we view the statutes as works of art and no longer as idols to be worshiped. ( F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 329.)
But this is the scene in which Paul finds himself — a city full of idols. And we’re going to see him identify the idols, show the inadequacy of the idols, and use them as a bridge to the true God. And — as we see Paul do this with the idols in Athens — we’ll ask some questions about our own day — allowing Paul to challenge us — Christian or not — and the idols in our lives.
And the first thing we see — in our verses — is that we must identify the idols of our culture and their influence on our lives. In verse 16 we read…
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols…22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship…” (Acts 17:16, 22-23a ESV)
Now I realize how — the idea of worshiping an idol — may be something you object to. Maybe you don’t see yourself as a worshiper of anything — you consider yourself to be an atheist or agnostic. Author David Foster Wallace — who wasn’t a Christian — said in a commencement speech ( https://mbird.com/literature/more-david-foster-wallace-quotes/) a few years before his death, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” We’ll see what he means in a moment.
Maybe you do see yourself as a worshiper — but not of an idol. “I’m a Christian,” you’d say. “Not an idol worshiper.” But are we Christians humble enough to admit that idolatry is something we struggle with as much as everyone else? We find this to be true of Christians in Scripture. For example — to the Christians in Corinth — Paul writes, “When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. 10 But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. 11 I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NLT)
Don’t let the “claims to be a believer” phrase confuse you. The original language means “has been assigned the name or title.” So — this isn’t a claim made by the individual — this is the idea of other Christians saying, “As best we can tell upon this person’s profession of faith, they are a Christian.” Again, it’s not self-identification — like, “I claim to be a Christian” — but an others-identification — “Based on our assessment, you are a true believer in Jesus Christ.” My point is that — according to Paul — someone who’s been identified by others — as a Christian — may struggle with sexual sin, or greed, or drunkenness or — as we see right there in the list of sins — idol worship. Now — struggling against these sins — isn’t the issue Paul’s raising. Indulging in these sins — giving oneself to these sins — abandoning yourself to them — is the behavior he’s warning about — and he mentions idol worship right along with the other sins.
What is an idol? It’s been said that, “An idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God…anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.” (Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Viking, 2009).) And — this means — we can make anything into an idol. In 2018, Pew Research (Pew Research, “Where Americans Find Meaning in Life,” November 20, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2018/11/20/where-americans-find-meaning-in-life/.) asked Christians in the US if God was the most important source of meaning in their life. Let me repeat that. The question asked of Christians in the US was, “Is God the most important source of meaning in your life?” Only 29% of the Christians surveyed said yes. Meaning 71% of the Christians surveyed viewed something else in their life to be that which gave them their meaning. And is what — biblically — is called idolatry.
What about you? Be honest with yourself — what do you have to lose? Is God the most important source of meaning in your life?
What are some common idols of our day? Christians, we’re going to begin with ourselves first and then we’ll look at some idols of our culture. What are some idols within the church? (These ideas come from https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/272033-three-common-idols-in-churches.html)
There’s the idol of the past. We’re living in a completely different time than we were in 2019. What do I mean? It’s been common for churches to talk about where they are today compared to their pre-COVID days regarding attendance, giving, volunteers, and so on. But recently, the first post-COVID to post-COVID study was done and it discovered that churches in the US have experienced a 28% decline of in-person attendance between June 2021 and June 2022. Online worship views have also decreased by 15% during the same time period. As a nation, churches have never experienced the rapid decline in attendance that has taken place since 2020 and which is still continuing today. We were already on a downhill trend before 2020 — but our current situation is unprecedented in our nation. And everyone’s trying to figure out the solution.
For some, the solution has been to make an idol of the past — to long for the good old days. Now — we should be thankful for God’s faithfulness in our past — yet we must face our current reality so we move faithfully into the future. In case you’re wondering — I’m grateful to report that we’re weathering the storm better than many congregations in our nation. But — more important than our numbers — what I’m most grateful for are the many members of this church who are stepping up — some like never before. There’s a group of members — of this congregation — who are giving more, serving more, and sacrificing more than ever before — and it’s inspiring. I hope you’ve noticed this welcomed beauty in these recent turbulent years. The beauty of seeing a few hundred of our folks demonstrating a greater faithfulness than ever before along with a deeper love for God and one another than ever before. Though the pandemic has caused many people to disconnect — something we’ve not been immune to as a church — an unexpected blessing is seeing others who’ve connected even more than in previous years.
At our County Road 9 Campus I think of folks like Scott and Kristin Sharpe, Justin and Anne Stiles, Sarah and Brent Steiner, Cody and Meg Conaway, Hannah Otley, Emma Otley, Jordan Harpst, and Rodney Chaskel.
At our North Main Campus I think of Greg and Becky Burton, Kevin and Sam Boose, Matt and Amberly Heft, Lisa Ann and Nate Hoy, and Chad Hermiller.
I think of our next generation — middle and high school students — like Emily Tomlinson, Gabe and Camille St. Amour, Luke McCool, Noah Davis, and my kids — Caleb’s backstage controlling the slides today, Wes is playing guitar, and Alice loves serving the kids each week in the four and five year olds class.
Thank you all — and the many I haven’t named — for serving like never before. For connecting like never before. For giving like never before. For worshiping like never before. The new members — we installed earlier in our services — heard me tell them in the membership class, “We’ve got a group of folks — here at Gateway — who are more committed than ever before. And the best thing you can do for your own spiritual growth is to get close to them, get to know them, imitate them.” Thank you for being an example and a blessing to all of us.
That’s the good news. Here’s the not so good news. Our overall attendance is still 600-700 people less than it was at its peak. Which leads us to another idol common within the church — the idol of church size.
This has been an idol for churches around the world for decades — but especially in the US. Like businesses, churches have believed that growth in key metrics is the marker of success — the key metrics being attendance and giving. Yet we know that not everything that grows is healthy — for example — cancer grows but it’s not a growth indicator any of us want on our annual check up. Similarly a church can be growing in attendance and giving while lacking spiritual growth among its people. Thus we must be aware of the idol of church size.
Which brings us to a final idol found within the church — the idol of ministry programs. If we want to be diligent in facing our current circumstances — realizing that there are hundreds of fewer folks actively involved in our church than there were just years ago — we’ll be forced to deal with any ministry program idols we have. For we can’t do everything and — with fewer people — we have to be wise with what we do so we don’t wear ourselves out — especially our folks who are doing more than ever before.
The mission Jesus has given us is to make disciples of all nations. And that can be done in many ways. And know that the elders are seeking what this looks like in our current reality. But this is something all of us need to be doing so we don’t allow the idols of the past, of church size, or of ministry programs keep us from accomplishing our God-given mission. The mission of making disciples is why we exist — it’s why Jesus gave his life for his church — and accomplishing the mission is still possible in our current circumstances — but only if we identify the idols that will distract us from our mission.
Those are some idols within the church. What about idols outside of the church — idols that — Christian or not — may be demanding your worship and allegiance — whether you realize it or not?
Before we identify specific idols — one thing to recognize is how blind we all are to the idols of our day. I’m blind to my idols. You’re blind to your idols. My idols may be obvious to you and your idols may be obvious to me. Think of the folks in Athens — they were blind to their idolatry even though it was literally all around them! But — for Paul — his spirit was provoked as he saw the idolatry.
The reason why we’re often unaware of the idols of our day is because we’ve given them names like “entertainment” or “passions” or “hobbies.” They’re normal parts of life that have gripped us in ways we don’t even realize. And — here’s something that may surprise you to hear me say — many of the idols are fun! And — in and of themselves — there’s nothing wrong with enjoying them. It’s their ability to powerfully grip our heart that we have to be aware of. For — when they grip our hearts — they take precedence over our relationship with God. Thus 71% of us find our meaning for life in something other than God.
So what are modern day idols — how about a little humor to reveal some of our idols? Authors of a Buzzfeed article (Maritsa Patrinos, Karina Farek, Haejin Park, et. al., 25 of Our Deepest Desires,” November 22, 2015. https://www.buzzfeed.com/maritsapatrinos/25-of-our-deepest-desires.) mentioned some of their “light-hearted” deepest desires — including…
[Having all of ] the contents on our Amazon wish list
Or just to live comfortably in our winter coat
To procrastinate until we die
To be the one to break the pinata
To be as glorious and peaceful as Bob Ross
To have your phone battery last the whole day
And…a bigger bladder.
Now — you may not resonate with anything on their list — but what are your deepest desires? What gives meaning to your life? How are you chasing your desires — ordering your life around them?
Identity is an idol of our day. (These examples are inspired by Jeffery Curtis Poor, “10 Surprising Modern Day Idols (How to Identify Idol Worship in Your Life),” January 4, 2022. https://www.rethinknow.org/idol-worship-today/) In fact, this may be the biggest idol of our day. Being a social media influencer, or having a certain title at work, or recognition for achievements we’ve accomplished — are all identities people are chasing after these days.
Money is an idol. Many place their hope and trust in money. That’s why there’s such a shock to our physical, emotional, relational, mental, and — yes — spiritual well-being when the economy is all out of whack.
Work is an idol. Work used to be a means to an end — “my job allows me to provide for my family.” Now work is an end in itself — “work must give me purpose and fulfillment — something that gives meaning to my life.”
Physical appearance is an idol. Advertisements constantly remind us of this idol demanding our worship.
Entertainment, sex, comfort, our smart phones and technology — on and on I could go in naming idols of our day — idols demanding our worship. We’ve turned sex into entertainment — we call it pornography — and now have access to it on our smartphones — which most of us are addicted to with or without pornography. If you think you’re not addicted to your phone — turn on your Screen Time — if you have an iPhone — if you have an Android — I don’t know what to tell you — turn on the setting that will tell you how much of your day you spend on your phone. Even set limits for how much time you can be on your phone and let someone else create the password so you can’t change the settings. Find out how often you have to pick up your phone because it’s demanding you to pay attention to it.
There are many idols of our day. The first step we must take is to identify them.
THE INADEQUACY OF IDOLS
Now let’s discover their inadequacy. Verse 22.
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship…” (Acts 17:22-23a ESV)
Paul tells the council that he can see that they’re a very religious people — it’s obvious because of all of their idols — which he calls their “objects of worship.” And the sheer amount of their idols shows an inadequacy in each of them. None of them are able to fulfill what they promise — idols always leave you empty — wanting for more. And what Paul observes in the Athenians is something true about all of us. We can’t help but worship because we’ve been created to be worshippers. One pastor says it this way. “Everybody has desires. The reason you have desires is because God put them in you. All God’s gifts are good, but a desire can be misused, abused, and perverted. Fire is good in the fireplace, but fire in the wrong place can burn a house down.” (Rick Warren, “Praying for Your Deepest Desires,” September 17, 2021. https://pastorrick.com/praying-for-your-deepest-desires/) Your desire to worship is a God given gift. But this gift is abused when it’s misplaced by worshiping something other than the Giver of the gift.
Earlier I quoted David Foster Wallace — but I didn’t finish his thoughts on worship. Here’s what else he said. “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths…On one level, we all know this stuff already…The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”
You see, whether the idol that fights for your worship is the past or church size or ministry programs or money or beauty or work or identity — ultimately the lie they all tell us is that our deepest desires cannot be satisfied in God. The lie they tell us is that — for our deepest desires to be fulfilled — we must look elsewhere because God isn’t enough. Yet our idols always — always! — fail to live up to what they promise to us. All of them will eat us alive. If it’s money — you’ll never have enough. If it’s beauty — there’s always someone more beautiful than you and age will catch up to you eventually. If it’s knowledge — you’re limited in what you can know. If it’s sex, or power, or church attendance or ministry programs — all will disappoint you and leave you lost in the end.
IDOLS AS A BRIDGE
And this is where we discover how the gospel provides us with a different way — a better way — to engage with the idols of our day. The gospel — the Good News of what Jesus has accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection — offers us a way to use the idols of our day as a bridge to the truth found in Jesus Christ. In verse 18 we read…
“Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” — because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection...22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:18, 22-23 ESV)
The gospel offers us a way to use the idols of our day as a bridge to the truth found in Jesus Christ — that the fulfilled life is found in him alone. This is what we see Paul do with the altar to an unknown God. He uses it to point his listeners to the God they don’t know — but knows them. And — how Paul does this — is quite impressive.
You may have noticed the two groups mentioned who are part of Paul’s audience — Epicureans and Stoic philosophers. In order to appreciate how Paul uses the idols in Athens as a bridge to the gospel — you need to understand these two groups. The Epicureans “viewed pleasure as man’s highest goal. They did not believe in hell or that the gods cared about human matters. They believed that everything in life occurred by chance. They would have much in common with modern day atheists and agnostics.” (Rick Warren, “Praying for Your Deepest Desires,” September 17, 2021. https://pastorrick.com/praying-for-your-deepest-desires/). The Stoics — on the other hand — were “pantheists who believed God’s existence could be found in anything. They stressed rational thought and believed that all events were predetermined and inescapable — what we’d call fatalism.” (Ibid).
So these two groups are about as opposite as can be.
One thinks that — if there is a god — the god is uninvolved and unconcerned about the affairs of humanity.
The other group believes that everything is part of god.
One group believes everything happens by chance.
The other believes in fatalism.
Talk about a tough crowd to build a bridge with, right? Not to mention the fact that both groups call Paul a “babbler,” which was NOT a compliment!
So let’s appreciate what Paul does. He takes the beliefs of both groups and uses their beliefs to lead them to the truth of Jesus Christ. For example, Paul tells them that it’s impossible for the God who made the world to be contained in human built temples. The Epicureans — remember they thought god was uninvolved in the world — they would’ve agreed with this statement. But the Stoics — who believed that god was in everything would’ve disagreed.
Yet Paul also says that God is active in his creation. Now the Epicureans disagree and the Stoics agree with Paul.
Paul then says that all of mankind has come from one man — he’s referring to Adam — and this would’ve upset both groups because — as Greeks — they prided themselves on being the superior race of humanity. How dare Paul tell them they have a common ancestry with all other people groups!
And Paul says all of this — grabbing their attention and their emotions — to build a bridge to the gospel because. For Paul concludes with, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (Acts 17:30-34 ESV)
“The time has come,” Paul tells them. For what? “To repent. For the unknown God is unknown no longer. His name is Jesus Christ. And he was murdered and — yet — he lives. And what’s obvious to me is that you instinctively know that you’re obligated to worship. That’s why you have all of these idols and altars throughout your city. You know that you’ve been created to worship — you can’t help but worship. But I’m here to proclaim to you that the God who made you, the God who loves you, the God who demands your worship — can be known.”
Paul saw their idolatry and knew it was an opportunity to point them to Christ. Their idolatry was fulfilling their God given desire to worship something — they were just wrong in where they directed their worship. And the same is true for humanity today. We can look at the idols of our day and be judgemental of the people who worship them OR we can view them with compassion and love knowing that they can’t help but worship something — they’ve been made to worship. They’re just choosing the wrong thing to worship — idols that leave them lost and empty and unfulfilled. And — in love — we can use the idols of our day as a bridge to Jesus Christ.
The idol of identity can be used as a bridge to show others what it means to have their identity in Christ. An identity given to all who put their faith and trust in him alone for their salvation. An identity as a child of God — adopted into his family — guaranteed to us because of Christ’s death and resurrection. An identity where there’s true rest and comfort and freedom because — having your identity in Christ comes with the gift of knowing that the only person’s opinion of you that matters is eternally delighted in you because you are in Christ. And there is joy in worshiping the One who you know is eternally delighted in you.
The idol of money can be used as a bridge to show others “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, [who] though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9b (ESV)).Christ left the infinite riches of Heaven to come to earth. He was born into a poor family and killed on a cross without a penny to his name. Why? So that you — who are born with a spiritual debt of infinite amount — a debt you could never repay on your own — might be given Christ’s spiritual riches and receive the eternal inheritance that is his reward. And when eternal, infinite riches are yours — your heart’s desire will be to worship the One who’s given you such a gift.
Work will be an idol used as a bridge to show others that our work can never provide for us what we hope it will. For we all naturally believe that our works — what we do or don’t do — how we measure up compared to others — we all naturally hope that our work will be what provides us with an unwavering self-worth and value. One might even call it salvation. Yet we’re not saved by our works — we’re saved by Christ’s work. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)).
You see, all of the idols of our day can be used as a bridge to Jesus Christ if we’re — first — identify them and their influence on our own lives and — second — if we’re such worshipers of Jesus ourselves — so in love with him — that — like Paul — we’re provoked in our spirits by the idols of our day. Provoked because we see how they’re evidence that humanity has been created to worship. Provoked because we know that we can’t help but worship something. Provoked because we know — as believers in Jesus Christ — that God is not far from anyone. Provoked because we realize that he wants to use us to be bridge builders — using the idols of our day — which always are inadequate in providing true fulfillment — using the idols as opportunities to point others to Christ and the hope and freedom and joy and life that’s found only by worshiping him.
Paul did this in Athens — and some mocked him. Others were unconvinced but were open to hearing more. And a group of them believed. Which group are you in? Maybe you already believe in Christ — if so — his desire for you is to be aware of the idols of our day, be aware of their influence in your life, and find ways to use them to point others to himself. Maybe you’re believing in Jesus today. You’ve been convinced — though you’re not sure why. If so, please let someone know before you leave today because we want to celebrate with you. Maybe you’re unconvinced but open to hearing more. Know that you’re always welcome. Keep coming, keep listening, keep asking questions, keep seeking answers.
Regardless of whichever group you’re in — here’s wonderful news: God isn’t far from you. And the gift he gives — to all who believe in Christ — is the fulfilled life. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for making a fulfilled life possible for each of us. As we’ve misdirected our worship — wandering through life trying to find fulfillment — for every wandering step we’ve taken — what assurance there is in knowing that you were always near to each of us.
Spirit of God, open our eyes to the idols of our day. Provoke our spirits — first — because of the idols we’ve been blind to in our life. For then we’ll be humble as we use the idols that others struggle with as a bridge to Jesus.
And — Jesus — may you be honored as we point others to you. May you be exalted as we show others the fulfillment you are in our lives. And may you be blessed by our praise. In your name we pray. Amen.
May you go knowing that — the God who has promised you a fulfilled life — isn’t far from you. Amen.
God loves you. I love you. You are sent.
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