A Message from Mars … Hill

A Message from Mars … Hill

Pentecost 10 (NL4) John B. Valentine
Acts 17:16-31 August 21, 2022


Let's start out with something a little bit different this morning.

How about we channel our inner Casey Kasems and sing ourselves a verse of the only gospel song ever reached No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts??

Wait a minute ........ why the quizzical looks???

Because you don’t know who Casey Kasem was???

He was that guy who ... for decades ... ran that weekly radio program called “American Top 40” ... in which he counted down the most popular songs in the country ... from Number 40 to Number 1.

Because you don’t know what a radio is???

If you don’t know what a radio is ... well ... maybe you should look it up on your phone!

Because you don’t know what the only gospel song that ever reached No. 1 on the U.S. pop singles chart??

Let’s see .......

• Elvis Presley singing “How Great Thou Art”???

That was well loved ... but never managed to work its way up the pop charts.

• 1969's “Oh Happy Day” ... by the Edwin Hawkins Singers???

Sorry ... that only made it to Number 3.

• 1971's “Put Your Hand in the Hand” ... any of you remember that??

Alas .... that peaked at Number 2.

It’s none of those ...

No .... the ONLY gospel song to make it to Number One was recorded the year before I was born!

When ... in 1958 ... a fourteen year-old English boy named Laurie London hit Number One ... and actually stayed Number 1 for four weeks ... covering an American gospel tune ... “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”.


Truth be told ... if you know that song ... if you know those words ... you know the thought that is at the heart of this morning’s Scripture lesson!

Can we sing at least the first verse of that song together???

He's got the whole world in His hands,
He's got the whole world in His hands,
He's got the whole world in His hands,
He's got the whole world in His hands.

+ + + + +

You see ... in this morning’s Bible lesson ... Paul finds himself in the city of Athens ... waiting for his sidekicks Silas and Timothy.

And ... while he is waiting for them in Athens ... he decides to play the tourist and go visit all the tourist spots in this city for which it was justly famous ... even back then.

I mean ... even back in Paul’s day ... in the year A.D. 50 ... Athens was famous ...

• famous as the birthplace of politics ...
• famous as the birthplace of education ...
• and particularly famous as the birthplace of philosophy.

Athenians ... back in the day ... were as passionate about philosophy as we are nowadays about ... say ... professional athletics.

Athens was the philosophical equivalent of the big leagues.

In fact ... philosophers in Athens had both fans and fan clubs ... and going to town and listening to peddlers of new-fangled philosophical positions was a favorite Athenian pastime.

Anyhow ... Paul ... having some time to kill in this center of education and politics and philosophy ... can’t help but notice how full of idols the city is.

There’s obviously the Parthenon ... that famous temple to Athena ... that huge temple that stills stands on top of the Acropolis ...

There’s countless other temples and idols scattered throughout the city center ... because if you didn’t have a worship space for your particular religion or mystery-cult or philosophy in Athens ... you somehow weren’t legit.

And then there’s this place called the Areopagus ... Mars Hill ... the debating ground ... where philosophical jousting matches were held.

And so it comes to pass that Paul ends up at Mars Hill ... telling whomever he can about the good news of God ... made real in Jesus the resurrected one.

And so it strikes me as ironic ... or maybe MORE than just ‘ironic’ ... that Paul’s message is that we are NOT alone.

+ + + + +

Seriously ... what is Paul’s message?

Is it not “God is near you — You are not alone — He’s got the whole world in His hands!”???

He says what?

“It’s plain as day that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed with this curious inscription .... “To the God Nobody Knows.” And I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently ... and know who you’re dealing with.”

“You see ... this God ... the God who made the world and everything in it ... this Master of sky and land ... doesn't live in shrines ... be they little grottoes like the ones scattered throughout this city ... or the big one there on that top of that hill. Nor does that God need the human race to run errands for him ... as if he couldn't take care of himself! This God makes the creatures; the creatures don't make him.”

“After all ... starting from scratch ... this God 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. Because this God is near you — You are not alone — He’s got the whole world in His hands!"”

+ + + + +

You see ... in a certain way ... that text reveals both the promise and the problem with Christianity down through the ages.

The PROMISE ... that’s easy.

• The promise of Christianity is that God is near and God is here.

• The promise of Christianity is that the divine ... the spiritual ... the metaphysical ... IS accessible.

• The promise of Christianity is that:

- all of our religious exercises and enterprises ...
- all of our shrine building ...
- all our vows and sacrifices ...
- all of our desperate prayers and pleas ..

That all of that is swallowed up in the victory of the resurrected Christ.

• The promise of Christianity is that “God is near you — You are not alone — He’s got the whole world in His hands!”.

But that promise is also the problem ... or at least the problematic part ...

Sure ... we think it’s great that God is near and God is here.

Sure ... we think it’s great that the divine ... the spiritual ... the metaphysical ... IS accessible.

But what’s NOT great ... at least what’s problematic ... is that it’s too easy!

• We want our religious exercises and enterprises to mean something ...
• We want our shrine building to mean something ...
• We want our vows and sacrifices to mean something ...
• We want our desperate prayers and pleas to matter.

We don’t really want it to be so easy ... not so easy for us ... and particularly not so easy for anybody else!

+ + + + +

Did any of you ever play ‘Hide-n-Seek’ as a kid?

Anybody ever play it as an adult???

• I LOVED to play ‘Hide-n-Seek’ as a kid ...
• I LOVED the pronouncement that it was time to run and hide ...
• I LOVED the thrill of finding a spot wherein ‘It’ wouldn’t be able to find me ...
• I LOVED the countdown to “Ready or Not ... Here I Come” ...
• I LOVED giggling with my buddies when ‘It’ passed us by without catching us ...

When it came to a good game of ‘Hide-n-Seek’ ... I was deeply invested.

But what was the best way to ruin a perfectly good game of ‘Hide-n-Seek’?

I mean ... ruin it for someone who LOVED the game like I did.

Was it not those simple silly words ... “Ollie ollie oxen free” ... or “All-Ye All-Ye In Come Free” ... or “Alle, alle, auch sind frei” ... or whatever words the kids in your neighborhood used to announce that the game was up and the outs were in for free???

I didn’t want grace ... I didn’t want freedom ... I wanted the challenge ... I wanted the game.

And I’d always get mighty perturbed when some opted to ollyoxall.

The problem is these Athenians loved a good game of ‘Hide-n-Seek’ too. Not the kid game in the backyard ... but the whole religious / philosophical conundrum of a ‘Hide-n-Seek’ divinity!

I mean ... in a certain way ... their whole community was built upon the presumption that life was one big ‘Hide-n-Seek’ game ... from the temples and the grottoes to the debate arenas to the marketplace.

• They loved their debates ...
• They loved their temples and their grotttoes ...
• They loved it when some new-fangled philosopher strode into town ...

But they didn’t much love ... at least not most of them ... when Paul strides into town bearing the message of Good News of God in Christ ... BECAUSE IT WAS TOO EASY!

And some of them figured out pretty quickly that Paul’s talk about the grace and goodness of God made real in the resurrection of Jesus ... this message of a God who has the whole world in his hands ... amounted to a cosmic olly-olly-ox-all.

+ + + + +

You see ... to quote a fellow who was both a profoundly insightful theologian and a friend of mine ... a fellow named Robert Capon:

“Christianity is not a religion; it’s the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however – the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over, period.

“All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices – all the chicken sacrifices, all the fasts, all the mysticism, all the moral exhortations, all the threats – have been canceled by God for lack of saving interest. More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death and resurrection of a Galilean nobody.

“Admittedly, Christians may use the forms of religion – but only because the church is the sign to the world of God’s accomplishment of what religion tried (and failed) to do, not because any of the church’s devices can actually get the job done. The church, therefore, must always be on its guard against giving the impression that its rites, ceremonies, and requirements have any religious efficacy in and of themselves. All such things are simply sacraments – real presences under particular signs – of the indiscriminate gift of grace that God in Christ has given everybody.”


“A Message from Mars …. Hill” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine in conjunction with our worship service on August 21, 2022.  The text upon which it was/is based is Acts 17:16-34, the story of Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus on Mars Hill in Athens.  To access a copy of this week’s worship bulletin, click here: Worship  Bulletin 20220821