Bigger Than We Imagine, Closer Than We Think

Sermon on Memorial Day – May 29, 2011 - (to view video, click here)
Acts 17:22-31 (click on citation to view text)

The morning was full of excitement and anticipation. No one really knew exactly what to expect, but somehow everyone knew it would be great.

The entire group had been preparing for nine months. They had explored, studied and discovered together. They had thought and dreamt about this very moment. And here they were. They had traveled to a new city, a new country together and had a full day ahead of them. As they walked down the street in the early morning sun, the energy was high and the chatter was lively. This was to be the first day of a ten day journey of faith.

The group was handed their tickets and they began the climb up the magnificent hill. As they took the long walk up the hill the group had no idea what is in store for them when they would finally reach the top. I walked in the front of the group and stopped to face them. I wanted to see the looks on their faces. As each individual made the last turn in the path, they came face to face with the grandeur of the historic acropolis in heart of Athens, Greece. Their eyes widened to take the entire scene in as their breath was momentarily abated. There they stood surrounded by the monumental glory of ancient Athens.

Athens…a city named for Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom; a city filled with memories of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; a city noted for its fantastic architecture and beautiful Classical Greek art. Located in this city were the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, and the Areopagus. Ancient Athens was a tribute to the abilities of human hands and a testimony to the wonders of the human mind.

All of the students had seen it in pictures and movies. They had learned about it in history class. But this was different. As they walked through the
Propylaea, a magnificent columned gate reaching to the heavens, each was overwhelmed by the majesty of the entire scene. Just inside the gate the students came face to face with the Parthenon in all of its glory! At the top of the hill one could see the entire city laid out at their feet.

After experiencing the acropolis, the group then went to what is affectionately called
Mars Hill, the location of Paul’s famous speech to the Areopagus which we read this morning. While there the group of students saw a glimpse of what Paul would have seen in the first century during his visit to Athens. There to the left was the temple of Hephaestus and off in the distance was the famous Stoa, from which Stoics derived their name. This was the site of many great debates and trials in the history of ancient thought. This was the hill of Aristotle and Socrates, the Epicurians and the Stoics. Of the Areopagus, the author of Acts wrote, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”

This is the cultural context of our text this morning. In the shadow of the acropolis – the center of the religious life of the Athenians – and just above the bustling agora – the Athenian marketplace – Paul was brought to speak to the Areopagus about this, “new teaching…” As he spoke about his faith, Paul could look down and see the statues and the temples to various gods scattered about the agora.

So who was this God about whom Paul was invited to speak before the learned of Athens? In this famous speech in Acts 17, Paul masterfully speaks of a God that is beyond our imaginings and human ideas of what God might be like yet is simultaneously closer than our own breath. To the Athenians, a very religious people by Paul’s own admission, Paul declares that this God whom they worship as “unknown” can be known and is at the same time both transcendent and immanent.

Paul declares to a people who built wonderful statues and awe inspiring temples to their pantheon of gods that God transcends or is beyond definition, description or category. To the learned of Athens and to our listening ears, Paul proclaims, this unknown god is “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24,25 NRSV). God is beyond the creative thoughts of our minds and the artistic creations of our hands. God is beyond. God transcends our understanding of who we imagine God to be. In his Institutes, reformer John Calvin wrote, “God’s infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure God by our own senses. Indeed, God’s spiritual nature forbids imagining anything earthly of God…as God is incomprehensible” (
Calvin There is nothing to which we can compare the glory and majesty of God. God is wholly other than us. God is transcendent.

Yet, God is not, as Aristotle once posited, an “unmoved mover” distant and unengaged in the happenings of the world which God created. The God of Paul, the God of our faith is transcendent, yes, but ALSO immanent. God is closer to us than we are to our very selves. The First Testament prophets and poets understood that God was not only the creator of all things seen and unseen, but this God was also engaged in the world and each in person’s life. It was a psalmist who famously wrote, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast…For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb” (Psalm 139:7-10; 13 NRSV). God is present in creation and active within our lives. God is actively engaged in the happenings of the world in which we live and is not simply a distant unmoved deity unconcerned with the ways of the world. And indeed, God’s immanence, God’s proximity is most evident in the mystery of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. One commentator wrote, God “is at once transcendent yet personal, sovereign and fully engaged in human life” (
Wall 248).

This is a challenge to us as people of faith. Do we have the courage to allow God to be all that we can imagine and then even more still? Will we allow the God of the universe to be closer to us than we are to our very selves? Of this delicate and often difficult balancing act theologian Stanley Grenz wrote, “On the one hand, God is transcendent. God is self-sufficient apart from the world. (God) is above the universe and comes to the world from beyond…On the other hand, God is immanent in the world. This means that God is present to creation. God is active within the universe, involved with the natural processes and in human history…In short, the God we know is immanent and transcendent. (God) is that reality who is present and active within the world process. Yet (God) is not simply to be equated with it, for (God) is at the same time self-sufficient and ‘beyond’ the universe. In conceiving of God, therefore, we dare neither place (God) so far beyond the world that (God) cannot enter into relationship with (God’s) creatures nor collapse (God) so thoroughly into the world processes that (God) cannot stand over the creation which (God) made.” (
Grenz 81).

We tend to err on one side or the other. We either conceive of God in such as fashion as to keep God distant and disengaged from the world in which we live or we bring God so near that God becomes equated with our human experience and reality. As people of faith, we must find a way to allow God to be a God who transcends definition and yet is closer than the air we breathe.

In less than two weeks, another group of students from Second Presbyterian Church will walk up to the top of Mars Hill. They will sit together in the shadow of the acropolis and in full view of the agora. They will take their place where the Areopagus once met some 2000 years ago. They will add their names to the list of over 210 young people from Second who have stepped foot on that very hill over the last 11 years. They will hear the words of the Apostle Paul and ponder who this God is about whom Paul is speaking.

What difference does it make that this God is both transcendent and immanent? I think you can find evidence of the importance in the lives of these young people. You see, some of the students who have sat on that hill have lost a parent or a sibling. It is vitally important for them to believe in a God who is bigger than their experience but close enough to walk through it with them. Some of the young people who have sat on that hill struggle with depression or physical illness. There is no question that they long for a God who is beyond their pain and yet familiar with their struggle. Some of the recent high school graduates who have made that trek have walked a path through life that is more difficult than anything I can imagine. Indeed, their belief in a God that is simultaneously transcendent and immanent has sustained them along the way.

And what about you? Through your most difficult moments, unexpected diagnoses, trying treatments, and painful experiences is it not your conviction that God is big enough to be beyond your circumstance and close enough to walk through it with you that allows you to carry on?

A covenantal God must be immanent as well as transcendent. Without God’s immanence, we are left with a God who transcends all things yet is not engaged in lives of God’s people or their world. Without God’s transcendence, we are left with a God who is engaged in the world but not sovereign over all things and events.

“True to the core biblical idea, then, God is transcendent yet personal, vastly superior to some detached deity that consigns humankind to the vicissitudes of fortune. God is not some provincial deity, the God of a few; nor is God unmoved and unconcerned about the struggles of real people in particular places” (
Wall 250). This is a God who is truly worthy of worship; a God whose transcendence and immanence are held in tension, held in one God. This is the deepest mystery. God is bigger than we imagine and closer than we think. Amen.


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