Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jerusalem, Athens, Washington D.C.

“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).

Today is inauguration day. A day of ceremony and celebration. Political parties will take a back seat to other kinds of parties – and plenty of them. And then comes Wednesday and the work of governing a nation and exercising leadership among the nations of the world. Wednesday can wait. Today we celebrate and pray. The formal celebrations will eventually come to an end. Our prayers must not.

Our new President is already being confronted with a complex world. But as complicated as the world has become, there has probably never been a time when leaders basked in simplicity. Not even a missionary like Paul. In the New Testament era there were two prevailing world views and each worldview had a capital city. The prevailing thought forms of the first century world were captured by Jerusalem and Athens. Cities separated by 780 miles, but worlds apart.

Jerusalem was defined by the worship of one God; Athens was defined by the worship of many gods. Jerusalem was permeated with an atmosphere of prayer and worship. Athens was permeated with a climate of debate and discussion. In Jerusalem life and thought were defined by the revealed word of God in Torah, wisdom from above. In Athens life and thought were defined by speculation and the questioning philosophies that sought wisdom from the ground up. Jerusalem was the Bible belt; Athens was the melting pot.


South Carolina of the late 1960s was my Jerusalem. My young faith was shaped by two voices. My mother’s soprano voice sang the faith into me and my father’s voice preached it from the pulpit. Everything about life in Camden reinforced what their voices sang and spoke. My second grade teacher allowed me class time to tell about the crucifixion – in a public school. Yes, South Carolina was a Baptist Jerusalem . . . and I am keenly aware that I no longer live in Jerusalem.

Paul was a Pharisee, shaped by rabbinical training, a scrupulous observer of Torah, zealous for the God of Israel. Paul was also a Roman citizen by birth. He was uniquely equipped for engaging a complex world. That’s what we see him doing in Acts 17.

What is truly remarkable about Paul in Athens is the absence of anger and defensiveness. He doesn’t rail against the Athenians. He doesn’t launch a campaign to make Athens like Jerusalem. Instead he takes a stand on a core conviction: God is alive and well in Athens, just as much as he is in Jerusalem.

President Obama will wake up on Wednesday and deal with a world that didn’t exist when he was born. Many of you will do the same thing. Some of you were born and raised in Jerusalem. Now you live and work and raise children in Athens.

Let’s learn from Paul. Those who are angry and defensive will have a hard time finding God in the everyday. Like Paul we must live with the certainty that God is alive and well in Athens. That God does here and now exactly what God did then and there. Our new President will probably speak today of facing the world and the future with hope. Can we who know Jesus do any less?

Gracious God, we want to be people who love the world in Jesus’ name. We ask for grace, that we might be hopeful rather than fearful, that we might engage our world rather than hide, that we might love what we see rather than mourn for what we remember. Bless President Obama and all world leaders. Keep us faithful in our prayers for them, confident of your faithfulness to us and to the world you created. Amen.

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