Hot Potatoes: Belief Systems (Acts 17:16-34)
A recent newspaper included the following article:
Got a friend who is feeling sick? During a dark or full moon, take an unfertilized egg from a black hen. In a sacred space, clean, concentrate, and empower the egg. Then rub the egg all over your friend’s body and chant, “Within, without, up and down, I banish the illness all around.” Finish by throwing the egg in a body of water, asking the water to whisk the illness away.
This New Age spell is among dozens of mystical exercises laid out cookbook style in ‘Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation,’ a 250-page handbook that’s flying off the shelves at Borders, Barnes and Nobles, and other mainstream stores. Written for 10 to 17-year-olds by New Age author Silver RavenWolf, it boasts everything a kid needs to become a pinnacle-wearing, spell-casting, completely authentic witch, that includes instructions for such uniquely teen rituals as the ‘Unground Me Spell,’ the ‘Just Say No Spell’ and the ‘Bad Bus Driver Spell.’
“In a number of books just like this one,” the author says that their publishing house is putting out, “parents don’t need to be concerned. These can be read as a kind of introduction to Eastern Mysticism and homespun folklore from Tarot reading to Feng Shui, a practice that combines Chinese Astrology and interior design.” All of these are being positioned as spirituality options in our day, available not just to adults, but even to young people, 10-year-old kids.
We’re talking today about belief systems. There’s a tremendous spiritual hunger today. If you go into a local Chapters store, you’ll find aisles of books on spirituality. You’ll find Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. But you’ll also find a wide selection of books on astrology, the New Age, on Wicca, and the occult. As a result, we have a dizzying array of religious choices. Christianity becomes just one of many.
Something else has happened. People used to believe that all religions were false. Now, many believe the opposite: all spirituality is true. It’s like a spiritual smorgasbord. People take a little bit from one, and a little bit from another. It’s a la carte spirituality. You take the bits that you like, and you throw out the rest. People say, “I like this symbol. I like this belief because it’s comforting to me, but I can do without that one. I’m designing my own spirituality just for me.”
One sociologist wrote a book called Habits of the Heart. She refers to one person named Sheila who named a religion after herself. Just think – we could have 30 million Canadian religions, one for each of us. She said, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time that I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheila-ism.” And this is what Sheila-ism believes: “In defining my own Sheila-ism, it’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.”
The good part about defining your own religion is that you have a lot of freedom. You can choose all the parts of different religions that won’t interfere with your life. You can choose mercy and love and acceptance, but skip the moral obligations. You can choose the parts about how to be a strong, charismatic, powerful personality, and leave out the repentance for sin part. Leave out the helping the poor. You can leave out any sort of transcendent, moral authority to which you must give account for your life. You’re the boss. You can still be religious, but without any of the inconvenience. You get your own designer religion.
With all the organized religions out there – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all the disorganized religions out there – Sheila-ism and Mark-ism and Bob-ism, not to mention movements like the Wicca and New Age movements, what should we do? I’ve noticed three responses to all the belief systems out there. Let me tell you what they are, and see which group you belong to.
Let’s call the first group UNCRITICAL. They believe it doesn’t matter. Believe whatever you like. They think it’s like belonging to a club. You belong to a club; they belong to a club; in the end it doesn’t matter. They believe it’s just a matter of preference. Nobody’s right; nobody’s wrong; it’s all a matter of personal choice. Whether you’re Buddhist, Christian, or a Sheila-ist, it doesn’t matter. You’re serving the same god. This group is very accepting, because they believe that sincerity is all that matters.
We’re going to call the second group UNCARING. That term may be a little harsh. These people care a little. They care about the truth. They even care a little that others don’t know about the truth. But they mainly care about themselves. It’s a little like the TV show Survivor, in which they vote a person off the island every week, and the last person on there wins a million dollars. If you’re on that island, you care a little bit about those getting voted off. But the truth is, you’re more concerned about you. Some in this group want to roll back the clock to the time that Canada at least appeared to be a Christian country. But a lot of people don’t really care that there are so many belief systems out there.
And the third group could be called UNPREPARED. They don’t know what to say. They know what they believe. But their worst fear is that someone is going to knock on the door and ask engage in a religious discussion. Now, if you’re in this group, you’ve got good company. A graduate-level seminary professor found that most graduating students were unable to respond intelligently when he played devil’s advocate against Christianity. A lot of us – if we do care – don’t feel like we’re qualified enough to deal with those who belong to other religious groups.
Which group do you belong to? Are you uncritical, uncaring, or unprepared? Some of you are looking for “none of the above.” Well, we’re going to talk about how we can respond to the religious diversity that we face. We’re going to in fact discover that it’s nothing new. It’s the same situation that has been facing Christians from the very first day.
Let’s look at Acts 17. It’s the story of Paul, and the time that he went to Athens. Now, ancient Greece was a lot like we are today. They were very tolerant. They had a lot of gods. Anytime that they came in contact with a group of people, the Romans usually conquered them. And when they found out about these people’s religion, they just invited these gods to be part of their own Pantheon. Somebody has said that the Pantheon was like a Motel 6 for gods. They’d always leave a light on for the next one. They had lots of gods on Mount Olympus.
What was Athens like? They had lots of gods. And, as Acts 17:21 tells us, “All the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.” Sounds a little like today – lots of gods, and lots of discussion. And it’s here that Paul demonstrates how we can react to the many gods and much discussion that we find today. How should we respond? Paul gives us three perspectives that need to deal with competing belief systems:
1. DON’T BE UNCRITICAL – BE DISCERNING
A pastor sat on an airplane beside a woman. They started talking about spiritual things, and she told the pastor how in her marriage one was a Catholic, and the other was Jewish. They didn’t practice much, but occasionally, on a holiday, they might go to the Synagogue, or sometimes they might go to the Catholic church. The pastor asked, “Do you ever wonder which one is right?” She said, “No.” The question had never occurred to her. She said, “They’re both saying pretty much the same thing, aren’t they?” And her response isn’t unusual.
Many people believe that all religions are basically the same. They are all different pathways, people believe, to the same god. For instance, Steve Van Brandt, who played guitar in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band, has gone on record as saying, “I am a reformed Taoist, part-time Bu ddhist, Hindu, animist, pagan, Jewish mystic, and Christian. I always got along great with priests and rabbis and mullahs and gurus, even though I spend most of my life constructively criticizing them.” You don’t have to choose your religion anymore. You can belong to all of them, while at the same time you criticize all of them. That’s quite a deal.
Now, Athens was like that as well. In Acts 17:23, Paul says, “As I was walking along, I saw your many altars. And one of them had this inscription on it – ‘To an Unknown God.'” These people were spiritual. They were searching for God. They were covering all the bases. A long time before Paul was there, a story goes, they’d had a big epidemic in Athens. They decided to release a whole flock of sheep. Wherever the sheep would lay down, they would look for the closest altar and sacrifice the sheep to that altar. They hoped that one of the gods would stop the epidemic. But if the sheep lay down and there wasn’t an altar nearby, then they would sacrifice that sheep to the unknown god. They were afraid that maybe there was a god out there that they hadn’t heard about. They observed every religion they knew, and then threw in an “anything we don’t know about” category just in case.
But listen to what Paul says. “You have been worshiping him without knowing who he is, and now I wish to tell you about him.” Paul pointed out that in fact there was a god they were missing – they were missing the one and only God. He created the universe. He has no needs. He was the one who gives life and breath to everyone. And he is the judge. He’s the only God worth thinking about. And he’s the God who has made himself known to us – most clearly and most powerfully through Jesus Christ.
There’s no need to cover your bases with other gods. Be discerning. Don’t uncritically accept every religion out there. Worship the one true God. Don’t be uncritical. Be discerning.
Some people say that all religions are more or less the same. That is a deeply insulting to those who hold different belief systems. Some Hindu groups claim to have 330 million gods. Judaism has one God. Some Buddhists have no gods. The greatest belief system today – naturalism – says that there is no such thing the supernatural. To say that all of these belief systems is the same is ludicrous.
Now, I have to admit that it’s attractive to believe that everyone is going to heaven as long as they’re sincere. But the Bible says that sin has separated us from God. It’s as if God is on one side of the Grand Canyon, and we are on the other. A lot of different belief systems try different ways to get across that canyon. Some try religion. But religion is never enough. Religion has never bridged the gap between God and humans – no matter how good a religion it is. Others try sincerity. And they sincerely try to jump across that canyon. But sincerity isn’t enough. Other religions try keeping rules. They figure that if they keep enough rules and do enough good, then that will get them to God. But they fall short. Some people take the hereditary approach. “My mom was a Christian…my uncle is a Christian.” They try many different approaches to God, but none of them work.
But Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the way to God. He’s the only way. And so the first action that we need to take is to believe in Jesus. Don’t settle for believing that everyone is right. Believe in the only person who can provide the only way to the only God who has created you. Give your life to him.
1 Corinthians 8:5-6 says, “According to some people, there are many so-called gods and many lords, both in heaven and on earth. But we know that there is only one God, the Father, who created everything, and we exist for him. And there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom God made everything and through whom we have been given life.” Don’t believe that it doesn’t matter what you believe. Don’t believe it’s a matter of preference. Don’t be uncritical. Be discerning. Know that Jesus is the only way to God.
There’s a second perspective that we need to deal with competing religious systems:
2. DON’T BE UNCARING – BE CONCERNED
We live in a city. In a city, you learn to maintain distance from other people. I was in an elevator with a friend. When the elevator door closed, he turned around and looked at everybody. He decided he’d rather look at people’s faces than the door. Did that ever make people nervous! It’s easy to become isolated and almost unconcerned about those around us.
We’re also encouraged to be tolerant. Seinfeld taught us the phrase, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” We privatize our choices and say, “Well, I wouldn’t have made that choice, but who am I to judge another?” As a result, we end up being unconcerned about those around us.
But listen to what happened to Paul as he entered Athens. Acts 17:16 says, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city.” He was deeply troubled. The word means to be provoked or upset. It has the idea of severe emotional concern. Paul didn’t say, “Well, it’s their choice.” He wasn’t dispassionate about it. Paul cared about what they believed. Why? Because Paul knew this: truth matters. Truth really does matter.
Now, I was thinking about how difficult a concept this is for us today. Part of the problem is that we’re taught that there’s no such thing as truth. Postmodernism teaches us that there is no such thing as objective, universal truth. All viewpoints, all lifestyles, all beliefs and behaviors are equally valid. Institutions of higher learning have been teaching this for years. This has led to the popular saying, “I’m okay – you’re okay,” which has been updated more recently to “I’m a mess – you’re a mess; we’re all a mess.” If you disagree with this, you’re called intolerant.
This begins to affect the way we live. In a recent class, the professor grew increasingly frustrated as students refused to condemn human sacrifices in other cultures because they believed they didn’t have the right to criticize another culture. We all get to decide for ourselves what’s right and what’s wrong. For instance, a man named Dennis Lee Curtis was arrested in 1992 in Rapid City, South Dakota for robbery. Curtis apparently had scruples about his thievery. In his wallet the police found a sheet of paper on which was written the following code:
1. I will not kill anyone unless I have to.
2. I will take cash and food stamps—no checks.
3. I will rob only at night.
4. I will not wear a mask.
5. I will not rob mini-marts or 7-Eleven stores.
6. If I get chased by cops on foot, I will get away. If chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line.
7. I will rob only seven months out of the year.
8. I will enjoy robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
But when Dennis Lee Curtis stood in front of a judge, his personal code of conduct didn’t matter. He wasn’t judged by his own standards; he was judged by the higher law of the state. Likewise when we stand before God, we will not be judged by the code of morality we have written for ourselves but by God’s perfect law.
There’s another example of this. It’s about Bill Gates. Bill Gates owns a pretty good chunk of that world right now, and he made a comment about spirituality within this last year. He said, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”
So this is kind of a parable about Bill Gates meeting the Creator. This was in Time Magazine a while ago written by Garrison Keillor.
Bill Gates was the richest man in America, and after he had gained a good deal of the world, God sent him an email: “Beloved Bill, I saw how you allocated your time resources last Sunday morning, and I was not impressed.”
“Riding a stationary bike, wat ching guys on the Men’s Channel talk about tri-glycerides and PSA counts, three words of advice, Bill, love thy neighbor. Ever hear what happened to the rich man who stiff-armed the beggar, Lazarus? I caused a general protection fault, and he has been offline for centuries. Anything you’d like to talk about? I’m here. Your Creator, God.”
Bill Gates typed out a reply, “Dear God, wow, omniscience, cool. But how do I know you’re omnipotent too? Gates.” The moment he clicked on send, the entire Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington went dark, and the darkness was very great. The air conditioning shuttered to a halt. He heard his employees keening and wailing over lost data.
His office was filled with creeping things and birds of the air. Beads of sweat dripped from his nose. Acrid smells drifted in, the Web site burning after a multitude of hits by Hittites. And he heard the clattering of hooves. A herd of crazed swine trotted down the hall, little pink eyes aglow, little pagers clicked to their ears. On his way out he touched his nose and found a boil. A leper lay in the lobby begging alms, and when Bill Gates dropped in a nickel, the power went on.
Back in his office, a message on his screen: “Beloved Bill, that was only the screen saver. There’s more where that came from. Obey my commandments or a virus could come to pass that would bring the information age to a shuddering halt. I did a flood once, and behold, I can do viruses. Once men tried to reach heaven by building a tower, and I made their formats incompatible. I could do this again. Or, I can do love and redemption. I am, after all, God. P.S. Your move.”
I don’t care if you’re Bill Gates or Dennis Lee Curtis. You need the truth. And you need to be concerned when others don’t know the truth. Jesus Christ said, “I am the truth.” Jesus said in John 8:31-32, “You are truly my disciples if you keep obeying my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
My question for you this morning is: do you know the truth? If so, are you concerned if others don’t know the truth? Don’t be uncaring; be concerned.
There’s a third perspective we need in order to handle the belief systems that are out there:
3. DON’T BE UNPREPARED: BE READY
When Paul got up to speak in Athens, was he prepared! Paul’s speech has been called “a model of sensitive but forthright confrontation of an intellectual audience with the claims of the gospel.” Paul quoted from philosophers; he met the people where they were; he was an intelligent and articulate spokesperson for Christianity. Paul not only was discerning and concerned. He was prepared to speak on behalf of Jesus Christ.
If you’ve ever heard Ravi Zacharias, you know that God has gifted that man to do the same thing. Ravi can go into any university campus, he can speak before any crowd, and he can give a credible defense of the Gospel. Usually, when I’m done listening to Ravi, I say to myself, “I’m no Ravi!” And most of us are scared when we think we might have to talk about our faith. But we need to be prepared. 1 Peter 3:15-16 says, “If you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But you must do this in a gentle and respectful way.”
How can I be prepared to talk about my Christian hope? Three steps you can take:
FIRST, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. You need to be aware of the major belief systems out there. There aren’t that many. But we should all be familiar with the general worldviews of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. And we should all be aware of the fastest growing belief system out there right now: naturalism. It’s the belief that natural causes are sufficient to explain everything that exists. It’s the belief that there is no supernatural. Nature is all that exists, life arose by a chance collision of atoms. We need to become familiar with the major belief systems out there.
TWO, KNOW YOUR FAITH. You don’t need to know everything in the Bible to be able to talk to others about the faith. But you do need to know about Jesus. You see, being a Christian isn’t just about having all the right answers. It’s about having a relationship with Jesus, and lovingly inviting others to join you.
THIRD, BE RESPECTFUL. People aren’t going to be won by your arguments. You’re not going to win them with airtight proofs, or by telling them they’re wrong. You’re going to win them showing them love – no strings attached. You’ll prove more by showing that you want to be friends than by winning arguments. Be respectful of others.
In short, we need to get prepared. If we care enough about the truth, we will.
In an interview, Billy Graham was asked this question: “If you had to live your life over again, what would you do differently?” His answer: “One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years, he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up.” Don’t be unprepared; be ready.
The Bible says that God loves the world so much that he was not willing that anyone should perish. And so he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to come to earth to live a real human life, and to teach us what God’s heart is like and what God’s kind of life is like. And Jesus went to that cross and died.
The Bible says that when Jesus went to the cross, he was taking on himself your sins and my sins. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” When Jesus went to the cross, he died the death that by all rights you and I should have, so that we would not have to die spiritually. Then, when he was resurrected, it was the guarantee of life forever, for you and for me.
That’s the heart of Christianity. That’s the heart of truth. But it’s not enough to just understand it. Because Jesus is more than a belief. He’s the way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Some of you are here this morning, and you understand what I’m saying, and now is your time. Amazingly enough, the Creator of this world is not far from us. And he’s tugging at your heart right now, and you know it. He’s knocking at the door, and you need to understand that moments like that are very important. To make this decision is really a quite simple thing. You can think about it in terms of the ABCs.
A, I acknowledge my sin. I just acknowledge my sin to God because the day is going to come when you’re going to stand before God. Say to him, “I acknowledge my sin. I’m a fallen person. I deceive and I distort and I hurt other people and I get arrogant”” You know you’re fallen, and it’s serious.
Then B, believe. Believe that Jesus came to this earth and died on the cross in my place. Believe that he took the penalty of my sin on him so that I can receive forgiveness and grace as a free gift.
And that leads to C. Commit your life to him. Hand him the reigns. From now on let him be your leader.
Some of you, God is calling you to make that commitment right now. And I want to give you a chance to do that. So I’m going to ask everybody here, would you bow your heads for a moment, this really important moment. Would you bow your heads? I’m going to lead in a prayer, and if you’ve never made that decision but you’re ready to right now, I’m going to ask you to say these words in your heart to God as I say them out loud.
“Now heavenly Father, I acknowledge I’m a sinful person. I acknowledge my brokenness to you and the things that I have done that have hurt myself and others and you. And I understand now that Jesus Christ came to this earth, and on the cross he died in my place. He paid the debt to you that I could never pay, God. So now I commit my life to you . I receive your forgiveness and your grace as a free gift. And as best I can, God, I vow from this day forward, I’ll live as your child. Thank you, God. Amen.”