A sermon based on Psalm 66:8-20 and Acts 17:22-31 preached on May 25th, 2014.
Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to journey into outer space.
On April 12th, 1961, his spacecraft, “Vostok”, completed one full orbit of the earth.
Being the first person up in space was quite understandably a remarkable thing. For the very first time, a human being got to see with his own eyes what was out there in the great beyond. Yuri was in the enviable position of being able to see the earth from space and take in its vast blue surface.
I wonder what it was like for him to stare down at earth knowing that he was the first to see such a view. I also wonder what he thought as he gazed in the other direction—out into the vastness of space.
One of the things Yuri said when he returned back home was that by traveling as far as he did—taking a full sweep around the earth—not once did he see God. There was just no sign of God, or heaven or anything that resembled either. Yuri was quite sure that based on all of the evidence he collected while he was out there that he had in fact disproven God’s existence.
Paul traveled to Rome often. Paul and Silas had been in Rome for three weeks and then traveled to Athens. Rome and Greece were totally different cultures than Paul’s own. The Greeks and Romans worshipped many gods all at the same time.
As Paul explored Athens, he saw all the statues and shrines built across the city—each of these icons were built to remind the people of all the gods in their pantheon.
Wandering around the city, Paul even came upon an altar made to an unknown god. The Greeks found it fancy to conceive of their gods in their own minds and to portray them in stone or marble.
Later in his trip, Paul was taken into the company of a council full of Greek philosophers called the Areopagus. They had seen Paul describe to their fellow Athenians a God who they knew nothing of, and they needed to hear more about this God from this messenger who had walked into town.
Each philosopher in the Areopagus made it their life’s effort to describe the world in a way they understood it—to wrap their minds around their experience. They took what they saw and tried their best to make sense of it—taking something from their own world and attributing a god to it and then worshipping it. So when Paul is dragged in front of this group of Greece’s best and brightest philosophers, he has a starling truth to tell them. Paul says there is only one God who is worthy of worship, and this God is too big to be imaged by any relic, statue or altar.
Paul tells them that this one God does not dwell inside of anything at all. This God created it all and is too big to be held inside of anything. Paul shares with them that the only God worthy of their worship is the One who created the entire cosmos. Paul tells them about a much larger God than they’ve ever imagined before: A God who cannot be contained. In a very nice way, Paul tells the Areopagus what they’re doing wrong: they’re trying to find their gods in front of them—inside the created order, when the One true God created the order itself, and resides not in it but beyond it.
God is uncontainable.
To put Paul’s message to the Areopagus a different way, he tells them that they’re using microscopes when they should be using telescopes.
In effect, Paul says, “Look up, and look beyond yourselves! Stop the navel-gazing and all your philosophizing! There’s a God who exists past your nose who is doing great and wonderful things—things that are well past anyone’s comprehension. Lift up your eyes and take in a much bigger view,” Paul says.
The one true God works well beyond us all.
This may sound like old news to us. We’ve certainly figured out that God acts in ways well beyond our comprehension. We don’t sit around naming new gods. Neither do we make any statues out of God.
But I do think that there is a new Word for us inside what Paul shares with these Greek philosophers, because we too try to squeeze God into things. And the best way to talk about this is to lift out Paul’s phrase, “In God we live, move, and exist.” So often we hear that phrase backwards. We hear it and think it means that God lives and moves and has his being in us. We hear those words, and we think they mean that God is inside us, around us, and among us. That we are where God dwells, and all we have to do is get in closer touch with ourselves, and whenever we do that, we will find God.
There’s a whole strain of thought in our country that says we are all containers for God and our spiritual job is to go inwards and capture God inside of us and make sure God stays there. When we do that, we too are looking for God using microscopes when we should be using telescopes.
Listen closely to Paul’s famous phrase again: “ In God we live, move, and exist.” Paul isn’t saying that God is the one who lives and moves and has his being within or among us. He’s saying that we are the ones who live and move and have our being in God.
There’s a vast difference there, so it’s worth saying again: It isn’t that God is the one who lives and moves and has his being within or among us. We are the ones who live and move and have our being in God.
Paul is saying that we, just like those Greek philosophers, have the invitation backwards. It isn’t God who gets invited into where we dwell, it’s we who get invited into where God dwells. It is when we understand that, and then respond to God’s invitation to dwell inside of God that we understand what worship really is. Worship is dwelling inside of God.
But here’s the good news Paul has to offer to us just as he offered it to those Greek philosophers: “God isn’t all that far away from any of us.”
For as many of us who make the mistake of thinking God is only a personal presence who lives inside of our hearts or minds, and our task is to find God there, there are just as many who think of God as some distant being who dwells “upstairs” in a place most of us call heaven, way too far away to make any difference at all.
Paul says the truth resides somewhere else entirely. God is not too far off, he says. God is much closer to us than we think. God isn’t exactly inside of anything we see or can touch, but neither is God all that far away.
The mistake astronaut Yuri Gagarin made isn’t all that different from the mistake those Greek philosophers were making when they worshiped their small gods. Neither is it that far off from the mistakes we often make as we talk about God. Just like Yuri Gagarin and those philosophers, we too like to contain God. Yuri thought that God dwelled inside of and was contained by the created order, and if he went far enough out, he would run into God. And the Athenians made a similar but opposite mistake: they too believed that the divine dwelled within the created order—that they could image their gods with statues and get in touch with them through altars and if they explored far enough in and around themselves, they would find more of them.
Heaven is the space where God dwells, and Paul says it’s neither too far away nor is it all that close. Our space and God’s space—what most of us call heaven—overlap and interlock, as the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright states.
God dwells in a space that is separate but not all that distant from anything else. It’s a space no microscope or telescope or spacecraft could ever find. It’s a space that Paul invites us to see with a different set of eyes—the kind of eyes Jesus has taught us to see with. May we dwell—live and move and have our being in God’s space—now and forever.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.