The Answer to Our Questions
Acts 17:1-4, 19-28
First Baptist Church Laurens
April 14, 2013
Bob and Francis lived side by side as neighbors in the small community that was the setting of the first church that I served while in seminary. Francis was very active and a leader in our church. Bob’s wife had been active before her death. When she had been alive, Bob had faithfully driven her to church every Sunday. He would then turn around and drive back home. He wasn’t very interested in church and his good neighbor Francis was one of the reasons why.
The problem wasn’t that Francis never talked to Bob about faith. The problem was that she did. Despite her boldness and her eagerness, Francis’ approach was detrimental not beneficial. What I mean by this is that she always talked down to Bob, made him feel inferior and spoke in a confrontational and hateful way. As a result, her approach drove Bob further away from faith rather than toward the church.
Ironically, Bob actually did come to embrace faith, during my time there as pastor. It happened as a man in the community simply became his friend. At first, the relationship began because the man was interested in Bob’s service during WWII. So, he came often to listen to Bob’s stories and to spend time with him. His interest and friendship was a welcome blessing to Bob at a time when he was lonely and without many friends in the wake of his wife’s death. Listening to Bob’s grief and aware of his loneliness, Bob’s new friend also begin to talk with him about the friendship of Christ. Bob listened, asked questions and professed his faith one afternoon while the two were together in Bob’s living room.
Despite her deep sincerity, Francis’ condescending tone and confrontational approach only drove Bob away but his new friend’s care, listening ear and ability to connect the love of Christ to the place that Bob found himself in his life made a profound difference and was quickly appreciated.
What we see at work in this story is very akin to what we see at work in Paul’s own approach to sharing Christ as chronicled in both the book of Acts and in the New Testament epistles that the famous apostle wrote. Generally speaking, Paul started where people were and used their own questions, focus and areas of interest as conversation starters while always attentive to the way that Jesus himself became the answer to the questions that they were asking and the subjects they were discussing.
Today’s text of Paul in the synagogue in Thessalonica is one such example. As he often did, Paul went to the Thessalonian synagogue on the Sabbath day. As his fellow Jews spoke about the Old Testament promises of a Messiah for the Israelite people, Paul began to help them to understand that Jesus was this long hoped for leader.
Rather than being confrontational, condescending or arrogant, Paul started with the very place where their attention and focus was already placed and then simply introduced Jesus into the conversation.
This process of starting in the temple, listening to where his fellow Jews began the conversation and then introducing Jesus into their midst often worked well for Paul, but, not always. As a matter of fact, on a few short verses later in this same chapter of Acts, Paul finds himself in Athens. There, his greatest success comes in the Greek Aeropagus which was the place where community leaders and elders gathered to render legal decisions as well as to simply talk about and debate matters of the day.
At the time, Greeks worshipped countless gods and their belief had led them to even include a monument to any unknown god that they had missed in their pantheon of divine figures. Apparently, they must have concluded that since for the world was full of gods then despite their great intelligence perhaps they had missed one. So, rather than ignore such a god, they actually had erected a monument affirming and honoring this unknown god or gods that they had perhaps overlooked.
Paul’s wisdom here is stunning. Just as in the Jewish synagogue setting, rather than laugh at the Greeks, ridicule them or look down his nose at them, Paul again started right where they were. He began with their questions and their conversations about who this unknown God could be. Then, he merely allowed Jesus to be the answer to their questions.
When we first moved to North Atlanta, our house sat on a cul-de-sac with seven other homes. To be honest, I didn’t know very many of our neighbors except for in a passing way that allowed for us to call each other by name and exchange brief greetings.
This sense of distance all changed one fall day. One of our neighbors, whom we knew the least, had a teenage daughter named Lizzie. Lizzie came home that afternoon and died in their den. She had an abnormal heart condition and in the matter of a moment, she went from being a vibrant high school student to lying lifeless in the family room of their home.
As that horrific day unfolded, I began an unexpected journey as the minister of the cul-de-sac as we all tried to make sense of what had just happened. In the process I found myself praying with neighbors, having conversations about faith with them and conducting the funeral for a girl who lived across the street but whom I had never, ever known. In the midst of it all, something struck me in a profound way. Many of our neighbors were nominal church goers at best. But in that moment, they all had questions and faith as well as the love of God provided a basis for answers to all of them. They all wanted hope, they all wanted peace, they all wanted to know what happens when life ends or how we should feel when tragedy occurs. They were all questions for which our faith begins to provide an answer.
My epiphany in that experience was also a question for myself. Had similar questions long been there and had I simply failed to pay attention to them? And had they all along been asking questions and make statements that could have been natural transitions for faith answers if I had simply taken the time to listen a little more carefully. As, I reflected, it seemed to me that in all likelihood the answer was yes.
I don’t think my experience was unique. Instead I think it is the story of all of our lives. Every day, people say things, ask questions, make statements and share the concerns of their lives with us. So often, in a gentle, easy, non-confrontational our relationship with Jesus can and should be the natural answer.
So, how to we prepare to offer it? I think we do so by being faithful to two tasks. First, we must be faithful to listening attentively and carefully to the statements, questions and observations of our neighbors. Second, we must have the courage, to offer the answer of Christ when the opportunity comes.
As the old saying goes, Jesus really is the answer for our world today. As the apostle Paul discovered almost 2000 year ago, he is indeed the answer to the question that the world is already asking. Amen