“Seek and You Shall Be Found”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 16, 2014

Scripture:  Acts 17:16-28

 

Sometimes God is so easy to find. Sometimes faith feels like a bright, cloudless, sunny day, a surefire, unshakable confidence in God’s presence. Think of a family welcoming a hoped-for and long-awaited baby… or a returning soldier, reunited with a spouse… or a CT scan that says the cancer is gone… or the beauty of the sunrise after a long, dark night.

Other times, it is not so easy. Think of a couple who want so much to have children but cannot seem to do so… or a military spouse who hears the doorbell ring and sees two uniformed officers on the front porch… or a doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis… or the devastation wrought by tornados and hurricanes.

Sometimes God is so easy to find. And other times, it is not so easy. Other times, the life of faith can feel hard.

Sometimes it feels like a game of Peekaboo. God’s face shows up for a moment, and you catch a full-on glimpse of that beautiful smile, and then it disappears again. The clouds part and the light shines through for a moment, and you bask in that warmth and radiance, and then the fog returns and obscures your vision. The Holy Spirit peeks at you like a shy admirer, looking at you only when your back is turned, and then blending into the crowd when you look directly toward her. The glimpses you catch make you feel special, chosen, beloved—but they evaporate as quickly as they appeared.

Sometimes it feels like a game of Blind Man’s Bluff or Marco Polo. You feel like you’re blindfolded, stumbling along, bumping into things with every step, chasing after an elusive target. Just when you think you’re there, you reach out your hands and lunge toward God, only to come up empty. Sometimes you catch the sound of footsteps or the rustle of clothing, and you turn and try to follow, but by the time you get yourself pointed in the right direction, the sound has moved on; God has slipped away again.

Sometimes it feels like a game of Hide and Seek. You know God is out there somewhere, and you set out to look everywhere until you find him. You peer underneath couches; you check behind the coats on the rack; you try to see into the deepest, darkest corners. But no matter how hard you look, no matter how many doors you open, you can’t get your hands on the one you want so much to find.

 

The Athenians in today’s scripture reading may not have known about Peekaboo, or Blind Man’s Bluff, or Marco Polo, or Hide and Seek—but they certainly knew about searching for God. If you remember studying Greek mythology in school somewhere along the way, then you may know that the Greeks worshiped a pantheon of deities, each with dominion over a certain area of life. Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty; Ares was the god of war; Hades ruled the underworld; Zeus ruled the skies; Athena granted wisdom and courage; and so on.

In the ancient Greek understanding, the gods were capricious. They had whims and passions not unlike our own, and as they went about acting on them, human lives hung in the balance. So people would build altars to their deities and make offerings there, in hopes that the gods would look upon them with favor.

In our reading today, we hear that when the apostle Paul visited Athens, he found altars all over the place, each one dedicated to a different deity. Clearly the Athenians were serious about searching for God and had invested a great deal of resources in the quest. They expressed their deep yearnings through the solidity of stone and the potency of offerings.

And because the gods were capricious, and because the people feared offending some as-yet-undiscovered deity by neglecting to worship him or her, the Athenians even built an altar dedicated to an unknown god. Presumably, they worshiped there from time to time—maybe when they were comfortable and felt like they were on good terms with the other gods, or maybe when they were unsure which deity to appease, or maybe when they had tried everything else, and nothing had worked, and they were really, truly desperate.

 

Into that context, into that community of people who were so committed to maintaining their relationships with the gods, Paul spoke a word of hope. You could hear it as a word of judgment, but I think it was less a criticism and more an invitation.

“Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 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, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

Paul said, “You don’t have to build altars and offer sacrifices. You don’t have to worry about offending an unknown God. The Lord of heaven and earth made you, shaped you, sculpted your spirit, gave you life and breath. Such a God will not forget you, will not abandon you, will never leave you or forsake you. Such a God is the very ground of our being, the very root of our longing, the very One for whom we yearn.” Or, as Saint Augustine would put it, about three centuries later, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Paul told the Athenians—Paul tells us—that the search for God itself is holy, that the desire for God is sacred, that the yearning in our hearts is itself a gift from God. The game of Peekaboo is holy, both when you can see God and when you can’t. The game of Blind Man’s Bluff is holy, even when you are stumbling around and tripping over yourself and can’t seem to find your way. The game of Hide and Seek is holy, even when the One you seek seems to stay stubbornly hidden. The search for God is itself holy; the desire for God is itself sacred; the yearning in our hearts is itself a gift from God.

 

Here’s the thing about the God Paul proclaimed, the God we know in Jesus: God is not capricious. We don’t have to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to achieve God’s acceptance. We don’t have to merit God’s love. We don’t have to build altars of stone and offer up sacrificial offerings at them. What God wants from us, says Paul, is the seeking, the groping, the search. What God yearns for is our yearning itself, rightly directed toward the One who is the source and end of all our being. What God longs for is for us to know for Whom we long, and to let the longing itself guide us home.

So when it feels like you are stumbling around in the dark, know this: the first move always belongs to God, and God always moves toward us, toward creation. When it feels like you are chasing after the sound of God’s footsteps, know this: it is really God who is searching for us, following us with blessings, seeking to find us and embrace us and bring us home. When it feels like you are peering fruitlessly into the deepest, darkest corners, know this: when we seek God, God finds us.

And when it feels like the search is futile, like you’ll never find the One you seek, know this: you are in good company. Christians in every place and time, from the apostle Paul to Saint Augustine to us, today, have been there, too. And so I offer you this prayer from Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual thinkers and writers of the twentieth century:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think that I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always,

though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.