Everything has a starting point. You had a starting point. Some of you were started on purpose. Some of you started by accident, but we're glad that you made it into this world. Some of you were started by the miracle of modern science. But you all had a starting point.
Romance has a starting point. Some of you can remember the first time you fell in love.
Your career had a starting point. Your marriage had a starting point. Parenting had a starting point. Everything has a starting point.
But what we forget sometimes is that faith has a starting point as well.
Your faith, whatever it is, had a starting point as well.
For most of us, our faith starting point happened somewhere in childhood with a conversation with a parent, or a priest, or a pastor. Maybe it was something you heard in church, or at a camp, or at a vacation Bible school.
But somewhere in your childhood, you were handed some building blocks and your faith journey began.
And for many of us, our starting point included a framework for faith that told us things like "God is good." . . . "God is good. God is great. Let us thank him for our food."
And somewhere along the way, somebody told you "God punishes evil and rewards good.” In fact, maybe the tradition you grew up in, they tried to use that to scare you in to being a good person.
And perhaps someone told you that "You can talk to God and God will answer your prayer."
Maybe you grew up in a tradition where you were told Bible stories; Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Jonah, Jesus and his disciples.
But then something happens . . . we get older and the starting point of our faith as children takes a hit.
Those stories that meant so much then, they begin to fall apart. And the foundation that we thought was so firm, it just doesn't withstand challenges of adulthood.
Sure, God is good, but there's a lot of bad things in the world that God doesn't seem to do anything about and it's hard to reconcile a bad world with a good God.
And I was told if I do good things, the good things will happen to me. And I did good things, and the good things haven’t happened to me.
And I heard that God answered prayer, but he didn't answer my prayer.
And so sometimes our childhood faith, and what started off so fresh, and so real, and so passionate, doesn’t survive the rigors and the pressures of adulthood as life chips away at it. Sometimes, chips it away to where it doesn't exist at all.
In fact, maybe you're here, and you're hoping that I'll say something, you're hoping that you'll hear something that could reignite the faith that you left a long, long time ago, not because you wanted to, but because it just did not seem relevant in the world in which you live.
So, what we're going to do for the next few weeks, is hit the restart button and ask the question, "What if we didn't know anything, were would we start? What if we'd never heard any of those stories? What if we'd never read the Bible? What if we'd never gone to church, where would we start?"
Today we're going to listen in to a conversation between the apostle Paul and a group of people that knew nothing about Jesus. In fact, they had never even heard of Jesus.
Now let’s remember that Paul wasn’t always a follower of Jesus. In fact, his name wasn’t always Paul, it was Saul of Tarsus and he hated Christians. His career was to stamp out Christians but then he became one.
Not because he read the Bible and knew all the stories about Jesus that we learned as children because at this point the New Testament didn’t exist . . . so his starting point wasn’t “because the bible says” but because of something that happened . . . it’s a great story that I encourage you to read in Acts 9.
But essentially, he came in to the presence of Jesus and because of this experience, he became a Christian and from that point on what he learned about Jesus came directly from people who knew Jesus. He was hanging out with Peter and John and James the brother of Jesus and they told him all about Jesus and their experiences with him.
My goal for you today is to listen to how someone who knew the people who knew Jesus presented the message of Christianity to a group of people who had never heard any of it before without saying “the bible says”, because in this conversation we get to the starting point of the Christian faith.
So, here we go.
Paul was waiting for a couple of his friends in Athens so he took a walk around the city and he notices that there are idols everywhere – to every god you could think of - and so he starts engaging people about religion.
Athens is full of philosophers so this wasn't hard to do. And he runs into a group of philosophers that want to engage with him at a deeper level and as he’s talking to them about Jesus, some of them started asking, "What is this babbler trying to say?"
Now here's why, because they'd never heard any of this before. This was brand new. They were starting from the beginning.
Others said, "I think he's trying to advocate a foreign God."
Now this is a big deal, because if you're going to introduce a new God in Athens . . . sure, there were so many they couldn't even keep track of them . . . but if you're going to introduce a new God, you have to get permission.
So, they took him and brought him to a meeting at the Areopogus.
The Areopogus in Greek mythology is where Aries was put on trial by the Gods for murdering Poseidon's son. So, this is an important place to the Greeks as it was considered a place of judgment. This is where they had civil trials and where they made decisions.
If they were going to do something new in the city, this is where they would make that decision.
So they took the Paul to the Areopogus and the counsel says, “You are bringing some strange ideas that we’ve never heard of before and we would like to know what they mean. So, would you please, for our benefit start from the beginning?"
Now how cool is this? They are asking for a starting point.
Paul then stood up and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. In fact, as I was walking around your city, I found an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God."
Now this is interesting. They've got altars all over the city to all these different gods, and this one alter to an unknown God . . . just in case they missed one.
This was the “just in case” altar.
Now we laugh, but some of us are the same way. Some people only go to church on Christmas and Easter, just in case.
Some of you have a piece of jewelry and if something bad happens, you feel like you have to touch it just in case.
Some of you, in your mind, run through some old verses you memorized as a child . . . just in case.
That’s what this altar is . . . it’s the just in case altar.
Paul says, "Look, you're very religious, you know there's something out there bigger than you. You don't know what it is and so you have this alter to the unknown but I'm about to take the 'un' off the 'known'.
I'm about to make known to you something you do not know." Isn't that exciting?
And then he begins, The God who made the world and everything in it is the unknown God. And He is bigger than all the rest of your Gods put together. In fact, you can't build a temple for Him. He is so big he couldn't fit. And he certainly couldn't fit on your little itty bitty altar that you have set up for him.
And all your other gods, you take them incense, and some potato chips and set a coke out there, and you put some stuff in there, and your little piece of gold and silver that the priest just steals . . . You're always trying to bribe your gods as if your gods need something.
But let me tell you about the Unknown God . . . He doesn't need any of that. He doesn’t need your stuff.
And they're listening because they’ve never heard anything like this before.
Then he says, “This God that you don’t know yet . . . well, He made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him.”
This little term, “grope around in the darkness” is like walking into a dark room and you know there's a light switch somewhere.
He’s saying to them, "Look at all these idols. You're God seekers, that’s why there's an altar to the Unknown God. And the God who created all this knew that. And he knew you would ask questions, and he knew you would seek, and he knew you would grope around in the darkness. And he knew that perhaps you would find him. Though He is not far from any of us."
And then Paul does something so cool. He quotes from their own philosophers. He digs into their own culture to say, "Hey, you haven't missed it completely. Even some of your poets’ kind of bumped into the truth about this big unknown God when they said that we are his offspring but there's just more.”
You can't make an image that reflects this big, grand, glorious God.
• In the past, God understood that people were seeking.
• In the past, God understood that there was darkness.
• In the past, God understood that people knew there was something more than then what could be seen, and so they built images, and they built temples, and they burned incense, and they made sacrifices, and they did all kinds of crazy things.
In the past, God just kind of said, 'Okay, I get it, I understand . . . but now he wants us to rethink what God is really like because He has done something new.
What has he done?
He has revealed himself to the whole world through his Son Jesus and has set a day when the entire human race will be judged.
And he goes on, "He has given us proof of this, to everyone."
Now, I can imagine the pause. "Proof, sure he's given proof. We're talking about religion, there's no proof in a religion. I mean look, unknown, we don't know."
I mean we believe, we try to have faith, we try to do the right things, we try to keep all the gods happy, but you're saying that somehow this new thing that you're telling us about there's proof."
Paul says, "Yeah, actually that's why I'm here. That's why I left the comforts of home so I could share this exciting news to you.”
So what’s the proof?
God raised his Son, Jesus, the judge, from the dead.
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, they fell on their knees and repented and they set about destroying their idols and altars.
I made all that part up, that's not in there, okay?
Instead, when they heard about the resurrection of the dead some of them sneered.
"Oh, seriously, that's where all this is going? The proof is somebody rose from the dead? Look, we may be a bunch of idol worshipping Athenians, and there may be a lot of things that we don't know, but one thing we do know, people don't rise from the dead. Get him outta here."
But others said "Hmm . . . you know what, we want to hear you again on this subject," and at that point Paul left the council.
Most of the people who heard Paul that day said, "If that's the starting point, we ain't starting. If that's what we have to embrace and believe to follow this new teaching, we'll just go back to unknowing."
But a few people said, "Okay, you are telling me that you know people who witnessed, a resurrection?"
And Paul would say, "Yes. And for the first few years I didn't believe it either. And for the first few years I did everything to stamp out Christians. And then one day I met the risen Jesus. And so I'm here to tell you, first hand, that God has done something in our generation as proof that he knows us and he loves us and he can be known."
The starting point for the Christian faith is a question and it's not, "Were Adam and Eve real people", “Was it seven literal days of creation?” "Did they really put all those animals in the ark? Is there enough water in the atmosphere to really flood the Earth? I've heard there's only enough water in the atmosphere to flood the Earth two inches. How do people drown in two inches of water?"
That's not the question.
The question, the thing you got to wrestle to the ground, the foundation of restarting or maintaining your Christian faith, is, "Who is Jesus?"
When Paul has this opportunity with people who don’t know anything about Jesus,
• He starts with creation.
• He starts with the fact that God cares.
• He goes to the point that God has revealed himself, God has revealed himself in a man.
• And if you have a hard time believing it, which of course you do, God decided to prove it and he raised Him from the dead.
• And that is the starting point for the Christian faith.
That is THE question that will always be THE question. And regardless of what happened to your Sunday school faith, regardless of what happened to you in your past, regardless of your unanswered prayer, the fact that God's not always good, that he doesn't always reward good, he doesn't always punish evil.
Those are fascinating topics but the question is, "Who do you think Jesus is?"
Because once you answer that question as you will discover as many of us have already discovered, many of those other questions begin to answer themselves.
So Paul left the hill that day, leaving them with THE issue to wrestle with, "Who is Jesus?" And that's where we're going to leave it today.
But the good news is this, the name of this series is "Starting Point" so we're just getting started.
But before you go I'm going to give you a quick homework assignment.
1. How and when did your faith journey begin? What was your starting point?
Was it was in childhood, did you kind of cobble something together as an adult? How and when didyou faith journey begin?
2. How well has your faith held up under the rigors of life?
In other words, has your childhood faith supported you through the difficult times of life or do you find yourself trying to support your faith and keep your faith intact under the pressures and the rigors of life? And as you think through these two questions it's going to pave the way for what we're going to talk about in the next few weeks as we continue our series, Starting Point.