Repressed Questions and an Unknown God.

Our Father… Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Today we come to the end of our walk through First Peter, a journey that has highlighted how we ought to live if we take seriously what it means to be members of God’s family. 

It’s God’s explicit desire that anyone bold enough to call Him their Father would bring that heavenly lifestyle to bear in the world around us; that he would empower us to make our own town – here and now – a little more like heaven as we, his sons and daughters by adoption, serve him in thought, word, and deed.

And that’s nothing easy: it requires us to be willing to undergo a total change, for those perishable, even rotten parts of our human nature to be transformed into the image and likeness of the Risen Christ.  We have to be willing to live as Jesus; willing to give up our pride, to give up our own best interests, to give up revenge or proving ourselves right: living instead so that all we’re known for are the good works and mercy shown at our hands. 

And, as we heard last week, this is not an individual project.  Living into the new life of Christ, carrying out God’s will here as in heaven, is not something that you or I can do by our own effort.  The Good News is that we don’t have to pretend to be strong and mighty. We can be ourselves: we can be small, we can be vulnerable, we don’t have to worry about leaving a legacy, because our strength and our worth isn’t in our small selves; our strength comes from being cemented together and grounded firmly on the foundation that cannot be moved: Jesus Christ, the Cornerstone.

With all that in mind, today, we see why it is that God wants us to live this way; we come to see the master plan – what it is that God intends to do with us, members of his family willing to live as he intends.

Good Intentions: An Altar in Athens

This plan is nothing new – in fact, it looks a lot like what we read in Acts.[1]

It’s a wonderful scene: St. Paul, having journeyed to the great, ancient city of Athens, notices how enlightened the people are, with everyone concerned with religion, politics, and philosophy. 

But then he notices something that strikes him: these modern, open-minded, educated people have, alongside their traditional religion, their temples, their synagogues, and their university debate halls, something most curious: a temple to unknown gods.

In the name of being progressive, of embracing the best bits of ideas brought from all over, the ancient myths of the heroes and gods of Greece had become a hodge-podge, a cafeteria-style religion where you choose what suits your taste, where you choose to take bits and pieces of whatever teachers happen to resonate with you, but are left knowing that your choices may or not be the “right” ones.  So, just in case, you hedge your bets: you throw in a little offering to the unknown gods just in case it turns out you were wrong.[2]

Paul, arriving in Athens, found a highly developed, modern, peaceful, democratic society with a fatal flaw: in the name of sophistication, in the name of open-mindedness, they had given up any sort of coherent, wholistic, logical system of belief and had instead developed nothing more than a choose-your-own-adventure set of superstitions. 

This modern society, in the name of progress, accidentally went backwards: they had a common language to discuss science, politics, and the economy, but lost the ability to discuss the things that, deep down, matter so much more to each of us: the questions of life and love, the nature of thought and emotions, and the questions of why we’re here, and what shall become of us hereafter.

That was the issue facing the Church 1900 years ago: their world had become a hodge-podge of well-intentioned religious superstitions that, added together, made little sense at all.

And Peter, writing to the Church living in that secular society, tells us simply: “do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.  Always be ready to give anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in you – but do so with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear…”[3]

Do not fear what they fear. 

Yes, at it’s root, all superstition is grounded in fear.  Now, it might not be heart-pounding terror – and that’s part of the problem.  When we’re terrified, shaken to the core, people – more often than not – are able to identify the cause, and do something about it.  No, superstition comes from that sort of weak, but constant anxiety, the sort of deep unsettledness that causes even the most brilliant minds to retreat and avoid the very things they want most.

You see, altars to an unknown god are no first-century problem.

With the best of intentions, we’ve built a society where each of us has to build our own altars.  In the name of enlightenment, in the name of progress, we’ve unhinged and unanchored religious ideas from any sense of logic and reason, and we’ve created such a hodge-podge of beliefs that those within the same family can no longer even encourage or build each other up, because no two people agree on what they hold to be true.

And, when push comes to shove, we resort to nothing more than superstition.

In terms of science, in terms of medicine, in terms of technology, we live in the most advanced time the world has ever seen.  Literacy is at an all-time high, and all the world’s information is a few clicks away on the phone in your pocket.

But, we’re anxious.  Deep down, our world is searching for answers.  For all our knowledge, we’re less able than ever to answer any of the big questions.  What’s the purpose of family?  Why do we have this desire for love and relationships?  What is the purpose of life?  What is the value in life?  What is the ‘common good’, and why would we seek it?  Why is life worth living if I’m not feeling happy?  What’s the point?

For every simple, scientific, mechanical question we’ve answered about the world around us, we’ve been asked to ignore the deeper questions that allow us to ground our life on a firm foundation.

If love is just a chemical reaction in the brain, then why does it hurt so much when a loved one is lost?

If memory is just electrons in brain tissue, then why can we be moved to tears by a favourite song, or even a familiar smell?

If the purpose of our species is self-preservation, then why would so many doctors, nurses, police officers, soldiers, social workers, and volunteers put their lives at risk every day for the sake of the weakest and least profitable among us?

If the purpose of life is survival of the fittest, then why is true joy found in the service and company of others?

Repressing the Deep Questions

We, like them, in the name of being enlightened, in the name of progress, have given up the very logic and reason that allows us to answer even a child’s most basic questions – let alone our own.

Our friends and neighbours, and sadly even some in the church, have such a mish-mash of beliefs that, when we need stability the most, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of foggy, half-hearted superstition on even the most basic matters.

I think friends with a young family who suddenly lost a pet.  Their little girl wanted to know what happened to their beloved kitty after she died.

Having nothing but a mixed plate of cafeteria religions, and having been trained like most in our society to bury these deep, anxiety-causing questions in the deepest part of our being, the mom did as she’d been taught: she did a quick Google search. 

She found a convenient option: she told her little girl about a rainbow bridge reaching into the sky, where pets are happy forever.

The girl’s father, when the girl went to him separately, went another direction: he went to a cheap, easy mis-interpretation of Buddhism and said that their cat was already re-born as another kitten to make another family happy.

Confusing for the child, but all well and good, and the anxieties and deep questions buried deep under the surface once again… until a few years later when the grandmother dies. 

“Where’s Nan?”

At moments like these those deep, repressed questions rush to the surface, and the anxiety becomes so overwhelming that so many in our society no longer even have the language to voice the reality of their grief.  So little of the language of the deep questions of life has been passed on, that it takes a trained counsellor just to fish the questions out, let alone begin the search for answers.

“Where’s Nan?” the very bright 12-year-old asks.

Obviously she didn’t walk over a rainbow bridge to be with Fluffy.  Is she reborn already into a new baby to make another family happy?

A well-meaning aunt steps in and offers the religion of The Lion King movie: “she’s gone to be among the stars, and every time you look up, she’s there looking down.”

“…but”, says the bright girl, “the stars are balls of hydrogen gas lightyears away… that doesn’t make sense.”

…and she’s right.  It doesn’t.

Neither leg to stand on.

All around us are well-meaning temples to an unknown god.  All around us are people who’ve been led to believe that the most enlightened thing they can do is to simply abandon the deep questions; bury them, and focus instead on the far easier questions of what is found through a telescope and under a microscope.

But we see the effects even now: a society that has no language to discuss the common good; a society that has no language, no venue to discuss the value of human life relative to the security of our economies.  Societies that have no way to discuss that my freedoms – and my retirement portfolio – depend on other people being willing to do work that I’m not willing to do, under conditions that I would no accept.

And the hidden effects are even worse, precisely because we cannot speak of them: people stressed, deeply anxious because they do want to get back to normal, and they are willing to take some calculated risks, but they aren’t willing to endanger anybody else… and we have no shared language to discuss what is right.

The Bold, Gentle Task

This is nothing new – in fact, it’s very old.

And our task is the same as those first Christians: we’re to proclaim the truth.

And it isn’t good enough to offer just a bit of truth.  That’s the problem we’re in. 

God didn’t send Jesus to offer us a smattering of happy thoughts and good advice. 

He has revealed, in his Word and by the Holy Spirit, a coherent system of belief and practice: a life of faith that is at once logical – that is, word-based – and reasonable – engaging our gifts of reason and thought.

He has given us the Spirit of Truth[4], to see and know the way, the truth, and the life laid out before us, as a lamp for our feet and a light to our path. 

And if we’re doing God’s will, here and now, as we will in heaven, then our task, like Paul in Athens, is to come alongside those who have caught glimpses, shadows, and reflections of that light, and gently and respectfully take them from the warmed-over smattering of leftover cafeteria-style ideas and invite them instead to a feast – to a banquet table overflowing with the finest food and the richest wine, and which offers the language to ask those deepest questions, and the opportunity to find rest, as the never-ending meal is digested over a lifetime with patience and faithfulness… and we become what we eat.

With gentleness and respect, your work is to give an answer to those muttering deep questions at the altars of unknown gods.

But for that to happen, you yourself need to be confident in the truth.  For us to do God’s will together, you need to know what we believe.  You and I need to throw out the half-hearted leftovers, and know why it was Jesus came as one of us, why he had to die, why bad things happen to good people; to know that prayer works, and to have experienced that God still heals; to know that all that we have comes from God, that strength comes in humble service, and that true life is only found in admitting defeat, asking for mercy, and allowing yourself to become part of the Body of Christ.

Then, and only then, will we fulfil our pledge that God’s will would be done… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.


[1] Acts 17:22-31

[2] Archeological evidence points to temples and altars to “foreign and unknown gods”, and refences in Greek literature point to sacrifices “to nameless gods” or “to the appropriate god”, essentially prayers addressed to whom it may concern.

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16

[4] See John 14:17

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