I am a native of New Orleans, which is the Roman Catholic cousin of the Bible Belt. New Orleans is an irregular mix of piety and hedonism. Nuns stroll by scantily-clad festival goers; Pentecostals make uneasy peace with voodoo shops. I grew up with the statues of saints and life-size crucifixes in cathedrals framing my city's eccentric religiosity.
So, in 1998 when I had a chance to pay a few quetzals to a bouncer at a home in the mountains of Guatemala so that I could see a wooden-statue idol, I leapt at it. The little wooden statue's name was Mashimon and the smoky room was filled with people writing notes to lay at its feet, dropping coins on its table, and placing bananas and mangoes in a nearby basket. Business was booming. While I could sense some voodoo-esque vibe and see the seriousness on the Guatemalans faces, the Protestant skeptic in me was convinced that the bouncer soon would be eating that fruit, counting those coins, and reading those letters. I wanted my money back.
I suspect that the statue is still there. Because idols remain where we last left them or dropped them in favor of another, easier one. Idols are quite easily switched out - out with the old, in with the new.
Behind the veil of every idol, the ones we make of stone or the less tangible but greater idol-monsters of wealth, fame, and power, is the human desire to control the divine by making the divine in our own image. They do what is expected, which is why we chose them as idols in the first place.
Such idolatry is, best I can tell, a disappointing and frustrating form of spiritual practice. But many people choose such idols because we desire the quick and easy. Idols are not so free to test us in the way the God of Trinity does.
Psalm 66 tells us that faith is a test: that loving God and loving people will not be easy. The Psalmist writes, "You, God, have tested us; you try us as silver is tried...place burdens on our backs." Not exactly a way for God to make friends or influence people. And so, it would be expected behavior for us to move away from a God who tests us when the nights are long and the suffering is loud.
And yet for those who remain true to the calling of faith, scripture promises turns toward hope and promise; for every valley a summit; for every shadow a light. The turn is the prodigal son who tests his family like no other child in the Bible and then demonstrates the wonder of the gospel. It is Ruth starving in the desert then becoming the benefactor of her family. It is Esther facing a racist pogrom and saving her people. The turn to hope and promise is Jesus crying out from the cross in agony and raised from the dead three days later. In Psalm 66 our turn happens at verse 16, "Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what God has done for me."
Did we hear that? The tested one becomes the testifying one. It is a remarkable and unexpected turn.
In some ways, every sermon asks what it is that we really need from God? Do we only desire the expected? To leave our mangoes in the basket, our offering in the plate, and get our transactional blessing exactly how we have requested it?
Let us be wary though. Scripture warns against trying to trap God in the shackles of our expectations.
So, the better questions might be: Why would we worship a God who never did the unexpected? What would life be like without the surprising flash of color or the beauty of unlikely friendships? What is faith if it has no miracles? Without the God of unexpected things, Joseph stays in his pit; Miriam drowns in the Red Sea; Peter remains a fisherman; and Mary is just another Jewish mother. The unexpected and miraculous are indelibly written on the pages of the Bible.
Enter the Apostle Paul who is one of the patron saints of the unexpected. Paul, the persecutor of the church who becomes the evangelist for the Lord on the road to Damascus miracle. And his arrival in Athens and his preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17 is among the most unexpected moments of all. The Epicureans and Stoics, the patrons of the Areopagus, did not suffer fools. They didn't appreciate bumpkins and superstition peddlers from far off places like Israel. And yet Paul plants himself in the high court of intellectual and religious sparring. There would be no friends in the Areopagus; there would be no bananas thrown at his feet. Paul has arrived to be tested. And it is one thing to preach to the choir and receive their hallelujahs and amens; it is quite another to preach to a room full of skeptics.
We might expect Paul to follow the sermonic patterns of Stephen and Peter, who earlier in Acts recount the history of Israel and argue for the place of Jesus in it as the culmination of God's plan of grace. But that is not what Paul does. He takes a different tack and crafts his message in deft and surprising ways. He quotes an Athenian poet instead of the Torah. He critiques the limits of the idols in the Athenian temples; but he does so not by quoting the ancient prophets who rail against idols but by using a visual example of something he saw in one of their temples. He says, "Look, I have seen all your religious statues; and I have seen you covering your rear flanks just in case you've missed an idol or two. I saw an inscription in a temple which said 'to an unknown god.' And I am here to tell you about that unknown God." He says this precisely at verse 23, "What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you."
Do you think they were expecting Paul to make the unknown god known that day? One has to wonder how many sermons they had heard about their unknown god. Not many, I'd wager.
The court of the Areopagus was all about reason and rhetoric. But Paul drops divine mystery on them. In spite of their intelligence and great learning, he reminds them that there is still much to be learned. And like all preaching in the New Testament, the final act, the final movement, the show stopper is reserved for the resurrection of Jesus. Paul says, "God commands all people to repent, to follow, for judgment in righteousness by an appointed savior who has given us assurance by God's raising the savior from the dead."
What is more unexpected than resurrection? This is gutsy preaching from Paul - the very one who knows something of the God who blinds him and converts him when he did not expect it.
Willie James Jennings, professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale, has written, "to speak of the resurrection of Jesus is...speech that challenges reality, reorients how we see earth and sky, water and dirt, land and animals, and even our own bodies. This is speech that evokes a decision: either laugh at it or listen to it, either leave or draw near to this body. It is his body or your stones." [Jennings, Willie James. Acts. Westminster John Knox, 2017. pg. 178]
Jesus is no dead stone like the little statues in Athens. Instead, he is alive, and he is on the move. His resurrection is God's great affirmation of unlimited promises; and one of the problems with the idols, both the ones that we touch and the ones that we create like wealth, fame, and power, is that their demands are high or their promises are limited.
Jesus' resurrection, or those stones? God's grace, or our idols? That's the choice.
When tested, the temptation is to run to a promise of divinity that never tests us at all. When invited to testify to doubters, the temptation is to run to an easier crowd. But it is just then that scripture promises us that God will stand with us and give us the words and witness to proclaim the grace which sets the world free. Scripture employs the resurrection to tell us that when the odds are at their longest, the victory of grace is closest at hand.
That kind of promise is unexpected, but resurrection can be trusted. Because we worship a God who does unexpected things. Amen and amen.