The unknown God?

Acts 17:22-34
John 14:15-21

Conspiracy theories abound. There are people who believe that the moon landings were faked in television studios. I can remember seeing moon rock when I was an undergraduate in the Geology Department at Durham University, and seeing how they examined made me reasonably confident it was what it claimed to be. Yet, there are still people who feel they can’t believe we landed on the moon.

Another well-known target of conspiracy theories is the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11, with theories suggesting their destruction by American bombs, by the Fire Service, by the CIA, indeed by almost everyone except the planes we saw fly into them with our own eyes. Perhaps the towers didn’t collapse the way structural engineers thought they should, but remember the Titanic didn’t stay afloat the way engineers said it would. Yet, there are still people who feel they can’t believe the twin towers collapsed because of planes flown into them by terrorists.

We’re now going to hear a conversation to elaborate what I’m getting at:
Person 1 I don’t believe in Australia.
Person 2 What do you mean you don’t believe in Australia?
Person 1 Well, people say it exists, but I’ve never seen it.
Person 2 But you’ve seen photos and TV pictures.
Person 1 Yes, but you can fake things like that.
Person 2 But what about people who’ve been out there on holiday?
Person 1 They might have been conned. After all, you sit in a tin box for 24 hours. You could be flying round in circles for all you know. When you land, it could be anywhere.
Person 2 You mean it could really be Guildford?
Person 1 Yes!
Person 2 What about the kangaroos?
Person 1 Brought in from the zoo to fool you.
Person 2 What about the hot weather? What about the different scenery, and food and people and….
Person 1 It’s no use. I don’t believe in Australia and I’m never going to believe, whatever you say.

Imagine if that conversation had been about God. Many of us, perhaps most of us, will have had conversations with people who simply refuse to believe that God might exist, whatever we might have to say. Let us be in no doubt that just as God was unknown to some in Athens in Paul’s time, God is unknown to some in our time and place, be that through following other gods, frivolous or otherwise, or through minds closed to all possibilities behind that which they think. Be it through deliberate choice or simply though passive inaction, I’m very clear that God is unknown to many in our world.

Our two traditions have much in common in that between they used to be the religious strongholds of north-east England. Northumberland and Newcastle were strongholds of Presbyterianism, and the towns and villages of County Durham had a Methodist chapel, most often the Primitive flavour, on every street corner. When I lived in Durham in the mid-1990s, it was very clear that the main religious movement then was Newcastle United, followed as a second religious movement by Sunderland. It might not be quite the same here in the south-east, but there are a great many people who practice the religion of large and expensive cars, the religion of shopping, and the religion of garden centres. Throughout our land, there are a great many people to whom our God is unknown in one shape or form.

So, how might we, who do know God, respond to this fact that God is unknown in our world?

Paul responded by proclaiming what he knew of God, and I’m sure we’d all stand by that. But proclaiming what we know of God is surely only one small part of the picture. Most of the people who need to hear that aren’t here this morning, and simply standing in the street and shouting would, if we’re being honest, be fairly useless as most people would ignore us. When you go abroad, if you don’t know the language people don’t understand you no matter how loud you shout. So, I think that we need to proclaim the God we know through the lives that we live, and the encounters with the people that we meet.

This is one reason why I hope our two churches will find a way to unite, because together we can be greater than the sum of our parts. More people to encourage and enthuse one another, fewer essential bills for our combined pot of money, all of which would give us more energy for mission.

But, actually it goes rather deeper than that. God can be known even in Farnham in 2017, but not just as a theological concept or a religious relic or some such. God is living and always present with us, and this is what our gospel reading is all about. There is no restriction on God and his love. – it’s always with us, whether we know it or not, and all we need to do is remember that, and make Gur best attempt to live that through our lives. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. This, I believe, is what John Wesley experienced that evening in May 1738 at the house in Aldersgate Street, when he felt his heart strangely warmed.

Let us listen to another conversation to reflect upon that:
One: There is something within us.
Two: That comes to us.
One: All shapes and sizes of us.
Two: Young.
One: Old.
Two: Annoying.
One: Lonely.
Two: Attractive.
One: There is something within us.
Two: That realizes our need.
One: That reaches out to God.
Two: That touches the heavens.
One: That is the spirit of truth.
Two: And we know that no matter where we go.
One: Or who we meet.
Two: That spirit of truth.
One: That counsellor.
Two: Will be right by our side.
One: There is something within us.
Two: Gently guiding,
One: Speaking words of love.
Two: And mercy.
One: And challenge.
Two: So we will never be alone.
One: Nor friendless.
Two: Nor without help.
One: Because that spirit will be there.
Two: Cradling and protecting us.
One: There is something within us.
Two: And there are those who cannot understand.
One: Who pour on ridicule and scorn.
Two: Because they do not see.
One: Or will not open their eyes to see…
Two: The God of love and power.
One: Who is everywhere they look.
Two: They may well think we are stupid.
One: Or dangerous.
Two: Or just plain weird.
One: They will attempt to make our lives difficult.
Two: But we know that we have not been left alone.
One: And so we continue to show the love.
Two: That we ourselves have been shown.
One: The love of the God of creation.
Two: And we do it by the power of his Spirit.

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