Christmas on Mars Hill

By Peter Hiett

Copyright © 1994 Mars Hill Review 1 Founded in 1994 · Premier Issue: pgs 49-64.

Sometime in the Sixth Century B.C. a man named Nicias stood before the Athenian council on Mars Hill. He reported back from a trip that he had just taken to the Pithian Oracle, a desperate trip because Athens had been plagued with disease for some time. Nicias reported: "Our city is under a curse. The priest has revealed that a certain god is punishing us for the heinous crimes of our former king." And even as he spoke, the dirges from thousands of people rose up from the city behind him, lamenting the dying there below.

One council member spoke up and said, "What god could this be? We've offered atoning sacrifices to every god. I can't imagine what other god there could be."

Nicias replied, "I don't know either, nor did the priest at the oracle know." With his words a cold wind swept through the marble columns as if to affirm the terror settling on all their hearts. Nicias continued, "We must send a ship to Crete to fetch a man named Epimenides. The oracle assures me that he will know how to appease this god."

And so after much debate, the humbled council agreed to seek the help of this foreigner. Very soon, in the time it took to sail from Athens to Crete and back, Epimenides Inisious stepped off the ship in the town of Piraeus, the harbor town. He and his traveling party began to walk up the road to Athens, and as they journeyed, signs of the plague surrounded them. Rather than being surprised or shocked by the travesties of an epidemic, Epimenides was surprised by something else. He said, "Never before have I seen so many gods. In fact, it's probably easier to find a god here than a man."

At that Nicias laughed and replied, "Yes, but for the life of me, I can't figure out who this other god could be. We worship every possible god we can imagine."

Epimenides returned, "Well, maybe that's your problem." The next morning Epimenides stood before the council on Mars Hill, along with a flock of choice, hungry sheep that he had requested the night before. As the foreigner stood there in front of the council, hundreds and hundreds of Athenians gathered there desperately looking on and hoping for some glimmer of truth, some hope of relief.

Epimenides addressed the council: "I'm going to offer a sacrifice based on three assumptions. The first one is that there's a god out there and we don't know his name. But, he's somehow connected to our plague. The second assumption is this -that if we invoke the help of this god, he is great enough and good enough that he will come to our aid."

At that one of the young men in the crowd yelled out, "How can we invoke the name of a god when we don't even know his name?"

Epimenides replied, "That's my third assumption: that this god is so great and so good that if we call upon his name, he will smile on our ignorance as long as we acknowledge that ignorance before him."

And so they all looked to the sky and Epimenides cried out, "Unknown God, look down upon this city. Forgive this city. Deliver this city. And now, if you would choose the sheep that You desire, if You would cause them to lie down upon the grass, we'll sacrifice them to You." With that they released the hungry sheep to wander around the grassy hill. Miraculously, several of the sheep began to lie down rather than graze with the rest of the flock. Artisans immediately began to mark the spot and collect the sheep for a sacrifice. Epimenides instructed them to build an altar on the spot and inscribe it to Agnos Theo, the Unknown God. They did as he instructed and sacrificed the sacred sheep.

That very day, the plague began to lift; within a week, the people of Athens were well again. Naturally, they glorified and worshipped this unknown God, leaving flowers and garlands on the newly built altar. But after a time, they began to forget. They made a statue in honor of Epimenides and put it in the city. Eventually, however, they forgot about him as well. The Athenians gradually slipped back into the worship of their old gods. The altar to the Unknown God fell into disrepair and finally into ruins. However, one day two of the city elders were walking among those ruins when one of them stopped and tore away a bit of moss to reveal the words Agnos Theo. He said to the other elder, "Demis, remember this? Remember what happened so long ago when we were just young men?"

Demis answered, "Of course! How could I forget? I was the one who cried out 'How can we offer a sacrifice to a god when we don't even know his name?'" His friend replied, "Don't think me sacrilegious, but if this god would somehow reveal himself, I imagine that we could do away with all these other gods."

Demis thought for a moment and said, "Yes, maybe so. But how will we remember? How will the people of our city remember that this god is not a foreign god to us, but one who has visited our city and saved us from the horrible plague?"

Shortly thereafter, the two men resolved to go before the city council and pass a motion that would preserve and maintain the uncovered altar to the Unknown God for all posterity.{1}

Half a millennium passed until another foreigner with a spiritual mission stepped foot in Piraeus. Not a Cretan but a Jew, Paul found himself, like Epimenides, much more amazed at all the idols than at the sites of Athens. We read about his encounter in Acts 17:16-34. It seems Paul had not planned on going to Athens but because he ran into some trouble in Berea (they ran him out of town), he fled on a ship and ended up waiting in Athens for his friends Silas and Timothy.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace everyday with those who chanced to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also met him there. Some said, "What would this babbler say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities." They said this because he preaches Jesus and this resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus [Mars Hill], saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you present to us? For you bring some strange things to our ears and we wish to know therefore what these things mean." (Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.)

So Paul standing in the middle of the Areopagus said, "Men of Athens! I perceive that in every way you are a very religious people. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God. What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you that the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man. Nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation; that they should seek God in the hope that they might feel after him and find him, yet he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and we move and we have our being. As even some of your poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone -a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. And of this he has given assurance to all men raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:16-31)

Notice that Luke records here that as Paul walked into Athens he didn't notice all the intricate statues and Athenian sites that most tourists came to see. Instead, Paul noticed the idols and was, in fact, extremely provoked by the extent of the idolatry the Athenians practiced. The Greek word here is paroxusmos; it's where we get our word paroxysm, for a sudden emotional or physical outburst. Seeing all the various idols, seeing all the futile worship going to those idols instead of God, Paul experienced a paroxysm. His heart began to pound, blood rushed through his veins. He couldn't laugh it off or simply walk away. His greatest, most passionate love, the Lord God, was being desecrated and ridiculed through such blatant, widespread idolatry. Paul's response is a natural response for any lover when the beloved is demeaned. Idolatry desecrates God; it pictures Him as so much less than He is that Paul's first reaction to the Athenians' false worship like a convulsion of furious emotion.

Sometimes I think God must wonder: "How can you, my beloved Church, remain unprovoked by the idolatry of your age? How can you remain passive while all around you my name is desecrated, slandered and dishonored?" Indeed, idolatry is not an ancient pagan custom that went out with moats and dungeons. The Heidelberg Catechism in the Book of Confessions defines idolatry as imagining or possessing something in which to place one's trust other than the one true God. Putting our ultimate trust in anything besides God is idolatry. Idolatry is misdirected worship. It's misdirected trust, faith, commitment, hope, glorification, honor, and attachment. Idolatry is misdirected love.

It's also a tragedy. For our ability to worship from the heart is in fact what makes us truly human. And in Scripture, the heart is not just the emotions, not just the will or the mind, but that which is deepest within us. The core inside us that trusts, commits, and is capable of having faith and genuine love. At this core we are created to trust, worship and commit. We can't help it. It's not a question of who has faith and who doesn't, because everyone has faith. Rather, it's a matter of what you have faith in. We're designed to worship and trust God; that's how we're created.

However, with the consequences of the fall, our capacity to worship has been disrupted and distorted by our rebellious self-centeredness. Consequently, as worshipping beings created to know our Father, but divided by the pull of our sinful natures, we end up worshipping created reality. As St. Augustine explained, the foundation for sin is putting our ultimate faith, trust and loving commitment in anything besides God.

This doesn't mean that I can't trust my wife, but just that if I trust her ultimately, it becomes idolatry. It doesn't mean that we can't love food and hot tubs and sexuality. Only, if we love those things more than God, it becomes the idolatry of hedonism or epicureanism, startlingly similar to the idolatries of the Athenians. This definition of idolatry doesn't mean I can't have faith in science, reason, or natural law. However, if I put my ultimate faith in psychology or fate or natural selection or any of those things, I surrender to the idol of scientism, similar to stoicism for the Athenians. The list of idols and "isms" goes on and on -Marxism, materialism, capitalism, legalism, humanism.

We don't have to be philosophers to realize that idols and their altars surround us here in American culture at the close of the twentieth century. Rather than becoming provoked by such desecrations of our Lord like Paul did, we typically just accept it and go on. We typically respond to idolatries like creationism, humanism, even celebrityism by turning the page to the comics or switching the remote control. We remain passive in the face of idolatries like hedonism and epicureanism that lead to things like homosexuality and adultery, children selling themselves into prostitution. We take in the entire vista of our culture's idolatrous landscape and remain unmoved.

Paul, however, could not. When he walked into Athens and saw those idols he became provoked to action. What did he do? He stormed up Mars Hill and took his place on the Areopagus and yelled at those Athenian pagans: "I know who you are! You are of the flesh. I have observed your idols and I know they are of Satan! You are all lost in the ways of Satan and the wrath of hell waits for you! You will all burn!"

Is that how Paul responded? Of course not, he didn't say that at all. We might expect him to, based on his anger and provocation. Perhaps many of us would give such a "turn or burn," "ash in a flash," and "start anew or bar-b-que" sermonette, based on a similar angry reaction. Paul, on the other hand, does almost exactly the opposite. While provoked to the hilt, he nonetheless goes up to Mars Hill and compliments them. He says, "You know, I can see that you are very religious people in every way. I can see that you have a deep spiritual hunger and you're concerned with satisfying that longing." Paul continues by telling them that God is not far from each one of them. He even quotes one of their philosophers (poets): "In Him we live and we move and we have our being for we are indeed His offspring." Who was this poet? Ironically enough, Epimenides, the same man who, 500 years prior, had publicly prayed to the Unknown God. And now here was Paul quoting his words back to the Athenians. Remarkable.

Paul's paroxysm was channeled into love. He knew that just as idolatry desecrates God, it also desecrates people. In loving God, Paul was called to love people. He hated idolatry but loved idolaters. He saw through the wretched trappings of idolatry to the hungry hearts of the idolators, in order to feed them the bread of life.

Think about it for a moment. If there was ever a cause for divine justice and wrath and fury, it was as we mocked and nailed the incarnate God to the cross -Jesus Christ. But far from witnessing the destructive, furious, wrath of God, we became the recipients of the ultimate act of love where God met us at our deepest and darkest need -our empty hearts. And He restored us to a relationship with Him, taking our guilt, taking our problems upon Himself so that we can be restored to proper worship. Incredible as it is, the most furious wrath produced the most furious act of love. God incarnate hanging on a cross was Paul's model. He had seen it in his own life, he who had been a Christian killer! And far from wrath, Paul received ultimate mercy and love, the same love that requires us as well to look for a need and fill that need. Paul discerned the Athenians' need. He recognized the way idolatry destroys God's children, the way it reduces, devalues, dishonors, disorients, and dehumanizes. Paul knew that idolatry reveals an emptiness that only God can fill.

Think about how you define yourself for a moment. When someone asks you who you are, how do you respond? Maybe some of us would say, "I'm a doctor" or "I'm a soccer coach" or "I'm a homemaker" or however we make our living or spend our time. If someone pressed us further and asked, "No, who are you really?" some people would say something like, "Well, I'm a person who's committed to the environment. I'm a person that depends on myself. I'm a person who belongs to the local church. I'm a person who puts faith in my fellow human beings." Bottomline, all of us define ourselves by what we put our faith in, what we depend on, and what we trust. We define ourselves by what we worship. We're not what we eat; we are what we worship.

Like Jesus says, "Where your treasure is there will your heart be as well" (Matthew 6:21). Lately it's become popular in our culture for people to "find" themselves. Some say, "I'm going to strip myself of all these old beliefs, commitments and responsibilities. I'm going to leave and go find myself." Writer and speaker Tony Campolo offers great insight into this phenomenon, when he points out that you never hear of somebody coming back and saying "I found myself!" Something like: "I left my job, divorced my wife, left the church, moved to Santa Cruz. I was walking along the boardwalk, down by the end of the pier, looking for myself. And there, by the bathrooms on the southern end right next to the water fountain, I saw myself! I said, 'Self!' and self said, 'Hey!' and we hugged each other." A self can't find a self. A self is not something that's waiting to be found somewhere, but a self is something that's waiting to be defined by what it worships in the heart.

We are what we worship. If you asked Paul, "Who are you?" He'd say, "It's no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me." When we worship anything other than God we commit idolatry. None of our idols are ultimately able to define us and fulfill us. Only God the creator can do that, only He is worthy of worship. Only He is good enough to define us, direct us, and orient us. As Pascal writes, "There's a God-shaped vacuum inside each one of us." There is an altar to an unknown God in every heart. Augustine says our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee. G.K. Chesterton says the man who knocks on the door of the brothel is knocking for God.

Consider that for a moment. I believe what Chesterton means is that when that man knocks on the brothel door, he's responding to that deep restlessness, that emptiness inside that motivates and moves him. Even though he may not be conscious of it, more than simply sex he's looking for fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. Indeed, what's true of all human hearts is a deep inner yearning, a restlessness, a hunger for God.

Out of this conviction, Paul responds to the Athenians, "He has made us that we should seek God in the hope that we might feel after Him and find Him." All hearts are made to seek God, and the Athenians eloquently bore testimony to this fact with an altar to an unknown God. In fact, Paul even said, "God is not far from you." He knew that God had been at work in Athens long before he got there, shaping and forming that internal restlessness, preparing them for the coming of the gospel.

Of course God has done this throughout history. In 1904 a missionary named Marcus Young stood preaching in a marketplace in Burma. Bible in hand, he delivered the gospel message faithfully but had resigned himself to the relative disinterest of his largely Buddhist audience. One day, however, as he was preaching, some strange looking men approached him. He soon discovered they were Lahoo, a tribe from the hills who had come down to trade their wares in the marketplace. As Young preached, the Lahoo gravitated toward him and became more and more excited by his words. They became fixed on every word he spoke about the one true God. Finally, in a burst of emotion, they grabbed him, practically kidnapped him, and took him back to their people in the mountains. They explained to Young, "We have been waiting for you for centuries! We have prophesies about your coming. We have even built houses for you to come stay in and for us to worship in. Look at our wrists. See these ropes on our wrists? From time immemorial Lahoos have worn these ropes because they symbolize our bondage to evil spirits and only you, the messenger of Guisha - the one true God - can cut these ropes. And only after you bring us the lost book of Guisha." Needless to say, Marcus Young was dumfounded. What did he say? "No! Silly myths. Abandon your pagan silliness about Guisha." No, instead, he said, "Friends, I've got what you've been looking for!" Marcus Young went on to see 2,000 Lahoos baptized each year until he died thirty-two years later.{2} (Don Richardson's book Eternity in Their Hearts chronicles scores of stories just like this one.)

My point is that the Athenians and the Lahoos both had the same restlessness, merely expressed in different ways. When we make the effort to understand the form of restlessness of those we seek to witness to, then we can come to them just like Paul and Marcus Young. We can say, "I have just what you're looking for."

We need to be provoked enough by New Age idolatry to really love New Agers, to understand the shape of their hunger, to understand their restlessness, to know their yearnings for the mystical so that we can bring them Jesus. We need to be provoked enough by other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism to really understand Buddhists and Hindus, to really love them and bring them the gospel. We need to be provoked enough by the idolatry of materialism to really love and know the desires of the materialists (like many of us). We need to be provoked enough by the idolatry of racism and bigotry to love a Klansman or a Black Panther or a Nazi Skinhead. I mean to really love them enough to look beyond the exterior expressions of their inner restlessness and realize the common ground we all have in the human condition as image-bearers created to worship.

But now that we are provoked to love, now that we begin to discern the hearts of our fellow image-bearers: How do we truly speak to the hunger? How do we communicate we have met the lover they long for? How do we begin to love and relate and minister to those around us in our microwaveable, instantly gratifying (and often instantly idolatrous) society?

While it seems obvious that Paul's encounter on Mars Hill would be a likely model, numerous critics and Bible scholars continue to debate its interpretation today. In fact, these ten verses in Acts are among the most widely commented upon of any in the whole book, so often commented upon that they even have their own name, the Areo Pogatica. The prolific examination of this passage is due largely to the controversial question: How are we to interpret Paul's method of interacting with the Athenians? In terms of interpreting Paul's sermon on Mars Hill, critics and scholars basically fall into three camps.

Some scholars in the more liberal camp postulate that Paul could never have even said what he said in Athens because he just seems "too Greek." And some scholars of the more conservative bent that maintain the Bible's inerrancy have said, "Well, Paul's Areo Pogatica is inerrant. What we have is just an inerrant record of a really bad sermon." That is to say, this sermon was an authorized, right account, but a right account of a wrong thing. They believed that Paul messed up in Athens by acting so Greek. He did not quote any Scripture. Instead he quoted Greek philosophers. He spoke so favorably to those pagans instead of putting them in their place where they belonged. He used Greek terms instead of biblical terms. He spoke of this altar to the Unknown God instead of the sacrificial Lamb of Judah. As a result of this interpretation, these scholars do an end run (or circular argument) around biblical authority and claim this passage is an authoritative example of how we are not supposed to share the gospel.

But along with a third group of scholars that I highly respect, I disagree with those criticisms. I believe they are unfounded. They're not based on the text and, in fact, they seem a bit cowardly. They explain away something Paul did because it makes us a little bit uncomfortable when we analyze it. I believe Luke recorded these words from Paul in Athens because he wanted them to be a model for us. Indeed, Paul is practicing what he clearly and consistently states in his Epistles. In graceful form Paul is living out what could arguably be one of the most wondrous and beautiful doctrines of the Christian faith.

To understand this doctrine, I must explain two other concepts. Concept A is my grandfather's dairy farm. When I was a kid we used to travel every year to Nebraska to spend a week on the farm. Honestly, it's just about the grossest place that I've ever been in my life. The farm was a place swarming with life and death, not to mention flies. Ripe, fresh manure stood inches deep in the barn. However, the grossest part of all was the food troughs where the cattle ate while being milked. Lining the muddy edges of these food troughs would be all sorts of coagulating body fluids, spilt soured milk, and leftover feed. If my description grosses you out, that's good, because it's essential to understanding concept A.

Concept B is totally different. This concept encompasses the uncreated Creator, the God of all gods, the Lord of lords, the King of kings, the Prince of Peace, the Heavenly Father, the majestic host. If you took all the good things, all the best things, all the true things, all the things that we truly admire and combine them together, it would be only a distant shadow (an image) of God, the Creator. Everything that is good, true, just, and holy combined -God is the epitome of these things. If we were to see God as He truly is, we would simply be destroyed by His majesty.

Two concepts, totally different. Now take these two concepts, bring them together and we get Concept C, better known as Christmas, the doctrine of the incarnation. When God ultimately spoke to us, it wasn't with golden tablets or great prophets or technicolor visions, but instead He came to us, not as an extraterrestrial visitor, not as a universal king, but as a human baby. There wasn't even a parade for him; he was simply born. If you've ever seen someone born, you know that it's not a noble way to enter the world, let alone to be born to two peasants in a barn among the flies, manure, the smell, and without doctors, medicine, beds, and clean linens. When God was born they wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a food trough. Think of it!

I'm afraid we've been so inoculated with Hallmark nativity scenes (plastic little figurines with "Silent Night" playing in the background with no manure, flies or smell, or any resemblance whatsoever to my grandfather's farm) that we've become blinded to the radical scandal of that event. There was no drummer boy. The three kings probably didn't show up for a few years. Only shepherds were present (and believe me, shepherds can be gross). There were a couple of peasants, barnyard animals, manure, flies, a food trough, and inside that trough: God (the author of Life, the King of kings, the uncreated Creator, the Prince of Peace) lying there in swaddling clothes, kicking and crying for his mother's milk. A cow could have stepped on him. That's the incarnation! In Latin it literally means incarnos, in the flesh. The Prince of Peace come to us in the flesh.

Now if you were an angel, one of the heavenly host, you would have been shocked. You would have been amazed; it would have been very hard to believe. Yet God remained incarnate among us for about thirty-two years. And what is so utterly shocking about Jesus is that He is so unshocking, so normal. The Pharisees criticized Him because He just appeared too normal. He appeared so incarnate. He ate and drank with every social group. He hung out with everybody. He touched lepers, befriended tax collectors, and even allowed a prostitute to pour oil on His feet and wash them with her hair.

It's safe to say that down through the ages the scandal of the incarnation has produced more heresies than any other doctrine of the Christian faith. People can believe that Jesus is God but they can't believe He's also one of us. Or else they can believe Jesus was a man, but they can't believe He was also God. Consequently, the orthodox faith has had to fight down through the years over and over again for the radical view that Jesus was fully God and fully man.

Even today the incarnation is a scandal. It manifests itself in our sterile little nativity scenes, Jesus movies, and the cults. I find Jesus movies to be so frustrating. In most cases He seems inhuman, floating around in a daze, speaking in King James poetic verse. He never says, "Hi!" or "Gosh, I could use a fish sandwich" or "Wait up guys, I gotta use the restroom." You see, that reflects our sinful struggle with the doctrine of the incarnation. It reflects our struggle with Paul's Areo Pogatica. And it reflects our struggle with evangelizing and witnessing to friends and neighbors around us.

Paul writes: "We are to have this same mind among ourselves which is ours in Christ Jesus, who though in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:6). The Word that was with God, the Word that was God became flesh. So, just as God became incarnate, Paul became in-Greek-ate.

He explains himself in 1 Corinthians 9:22, "I've become all things for all men that I might by all means save some." Now scholars never really question or debate Paul's message in this verse. But we really are amazed that he actually did it in Athens. That Paul, the mega-saint super-Christian, claimed so much common ground with those pagan idolaters. He not only went to them, Paul could talk like them, debate like them, compliment them, live with them, quote them, and even call them his brothers. What is Paul doing here? Is he betraying our Christian club?

I think Paul would say, "Yes. Of course, I'm betraying the club because Christianity isn't a club where you pay your dues, get your uniform, and learn the secret code. Rather, Christianity is an invasion, an invasion of God's love." By walking up to the Athenians and relating the way he did, Paul destroyed barriers of prejudice, culture, and tradition. Out of the rubble of this destruction he built bridges so he could attack and invade their hearts with the gospel of love. He was doing just what God did in that mangy manger in Bethlehem.

Through Paul, it was Christmas time in Athens as Jesus became incarnate on Mars Hill in the form of a little Jewish man living in their midst, speaking their language, quoting their philosophers, and talking about the answer to their great mutual quest -the quest to know that Unknown God. Like Paul we are called to be in-Greek-ate, in-something-ate. Who are you trying to reach? If you're trying to minister to your husband, then you need to become in-husband-ate. You need to enter into your husband's world, learn the things that your husband likes, become involved in the life of your husband and bring the gospel along with you. If you want to reach your neighbor, then become in-neighbor-ate. Find out what her hopes and dreams are, her fears and longings, and then bring the gospel. If you want to witness to teenagers, then become in-teenager-ate. Don't force them to adapt to your world, but adapt yourself to theirs.

Maybe some red lights are going off as you read this. What if you want to witness to homosexuals? Do you become in-homosexual-ate? Do you have to become a homosexual? No, definitely not. But we are called to enter the world of a homosexual to the point where Christ's righteousness stops us; we go as far as the love of Christ will allow.

Consider what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "To those outside the law I became as one outside the law, not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ that I might win those outside the law." In other words, I must become incarnate to the point of sin, to the point where Christ's righteousness stops me. Like Jesus said, we are to be in the world, but not of the world." Now you see, it's easy to be in the world and of the world and only a little bit harder to be not in the world and not of the world. But as Christians we are called to be in the world without letting it define us (being of the world). We're called to radical identification and radical separation, radical similarity and radical difference, radical normality and radical abnormality. That's what made Jesus so radical. He identified so radically and yet He was so radically different. But mostly as Christians, we are not very radically identified or radically different. And yet, if we're not radically different we don't really have much of a message to give the world. On the other hand, if we're not radically identified, then the message just drops to the floor. It remains irrelevant, never reaching its destination. It's crucified by our cultural idiosyncrasies, by the pieties of our club.

In Lifestyle Evangelism Joseph Aldrich writes, "The greatest barrier to successful evangelism is not theological but cultural." We don't have to look very far to see what he means. We have our own upper middle-class, American evangelical pop culture. We talk a certain way, dress a certain way, hang out in certain places with certain people at certain times, doing certain things, wearing certain clothes. We have Christian shirts, music, jewelry, exercise, schools, Praise the Lord clocks, and Jesus bumper stickers. We even have a special vocabulary; we can refer to fecal matter with some words but not others and we only use the proper words. We don't smoke, and we avoid parties where people drink alcohol. We're clean. We say grace before all our meals. Granted, we might gossip, hoard money, and overeat, but we think all that "Christian" culture stuff makes up for it!

The Christian cultural stuff is okay, perhaps even good in some ways. But's it's not prescribed by God. And when we get all that cultural stuff mixed up with true righteousness, it can form a barrier between ourselves and a world that desperately needs to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. We end up confusing Christianity and culture, spirituality and personality. We end up smelling of idolatry-our own pop-christian brand. Jesus says they'll know us by our love, not by our catchy slogan or Christian cliches or our Bible covers. If we had seen Jesus in Palestine, He wouldn't look funny. He wouldn't sound funny. He looked, smelled, and felt radically normal. He even went to parties where alcohol was served. He hung out with some pretty weird people. We don't even know for sure that He said grace before meals. But His heart was so radically different that He sent our world into a tailspin. The radical difference consisted of the things He said it consisted of, like the fruit of the Spirit -love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, and an absence of the works of the flesh -drunkenness, selfishness, envy, etc. He was...God...wrapped in flesh-incarnate.

Becoming "incarnate" enabled Paul to do three things, three things that evangelism still requires of us. First, it enabled Paul to understand the Athenians. Luke records that the first thing Paul did after he was provoked was to go to the synagogue and the marketplace and dialogue. Paul, rather than preaching, building churches, or founding Bible colleges, dialogued with the Athenians. He made a point of understanding them, finding out their fears, finding out their needs, finding out their history, their culture, traditions, philosophy. And once finding that need, he was able to address the gospel to that need, to find that point of contact, that redemptive analogy, the altar to the Unknown God. Today, I often think we're like people on a sinking ship. Jesus would have us yell out what people need to hear most, and what they ultimately want to hear: "Abandon ship and grab the life boats! There's room for everyone!" But we're too busy arranging the deck furniture, getting petitions signed to stop smoking and drinking by the poolside. If you want to evangelize, if you want to be like Jesus, you have to look past the heavy metal t-shirts, the tattoos, and the four letter words you don't like, in order to see that deep gaping inner need which beckons to be filled by the love of Jesus. We need to be incarnate.

Second, incarnation enabled Paul to be understood by the Athenians. Becoming incarnate meant speaking their language, utilizing their ideas and the quotes of their philosophers (like Epimenides). It meant referring to their images (like the altar to the Unknown God). Some people would say that Paul was being unbiblical because he didn't quote the Bible. But quoting the Bible doesn't make us biblical any more than quoting an auto repair manual makes us mechanical. Doing what the Bible says makes us biblical. And so Paul quotes the Bible a great deal when he's talking to Jews. But it doesn't make much sense to quote the Bible to those who don't even believe that it's true, without some form of explanation.

So Paul spoke their language. We need to learn the language of our contemporary Athenian-like society. I used to wonder why Jesus used so many stories about sheep and goats and Samaritans and grain and mustard seeds. It's because He was radically incarnate in old Palestine. If Jesus were to come to America today, would he likely say, "Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees"? More likely, he'd say, "Don't act like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live."

Finally, the incarnation enabled Paul to present the person of Jesus. Evangelism is so much more than passing out tracts and distributing information. It's not simply a method or formula. The Athenians were not a project for Paul, a notch in his spiritual hunting knife. The Athenians were the future Bride of Christ. And so Paul was taking the role of an eternal matchmaker. His job was not only to talk about but to exhibit the person of Jesus. To know a person, you have to meet him and experience him and so Paul became incarnate that the Athenians might encounter the person of Christ. Becoming a Christian is not knowing some "stuff" but it's encountering a person. The medium: Paul, displayed the message: Jesus. Evangelism was not a job for Paul; it was his lifestyle. He didn't set out to evangelize the Athenians. Rather, it simply happened while he was there waiting for Silas and Timothy. Becoming incarnate to the Athenians, Paul modeled Jesus. When we become incarnate to others, they then encounter the person of Jesus in us.

Missionaries often learn this the hard way. In 1962 the Sawi people of New Guinea still lived in relative isolation. They were head-hunting cannibals. Their culture could not be more different from that of Don and Carol Richardson and their infant son Steven. And yet these missionaries strove to become an incarnate presence among the Sawi. In fact, three Sawi tribes, fascinated by the Richardsons, moved their villages right around the missionaries' jungle home. After a long and trying period of learning the language, Don Richardson finally climbed the ladder into the Sawi man-house. Surrounded by the skulls of victims they had cannibalized, he began to share the gospel with them. He began by telling them about the Jews, the promised Messiah, and the sacrificial Lamb of Judah. The Sawi were bored.

Don became frustrated, discouraged by his inability to communicate and find a point of contact. He was also discouraged by the fourteen civil wars he had already counted right outside his door now that the two rival Sawi tribes lived side by side. Such fear and frustration finally led the Richardsons to plan to leave. However, the Sawi response surprised them: "If you'll stay, we'll promise that we'll make peace in the morning."

The next morning the Richardsons awoke to see the most amazing ritual, the most passionate ceremony they had ever witnessed. The two tribes were lined up outside their house, on either side of the clearing. An air of tension floated between the two tribes. On one side, people milled about nervously waiting. Finally, one husband standing there dashed into his hut while his wife looked away. He grabbed his newborn baby, took the child in his arms and ran across the meadow. His expression betrayed absolute agony. His wife ran after him, screaming and begging him to give the baby back to her. When she couldn't catch him, she fell to her knees in the mud, moaning for her baby. Her husband ran up to the other tribe and presented the baby to them. "Plead the peace child for me. I give you my baby and I give you my name," he said. Shortly, someone from that tribe performed the same agonizing sacrifice with the same intensity and passion. Richardson found out that as long as those peace children remained alive, the two tribes were bound to each other. They were bound not to war but to peace for the lives of those children. If the children died, then literally all hell would break loose-cannibalism, murder, civil war.

While this amazing scene unfolded before him, Don suddenly realized that this was the point of contact, the redemptive analogy. This was their altar to an Unknown God. When Don climbed the second time into the Sawi man-house, still surrounded by skulls, he told the elders of the perfect Peace Child. The Peace Child given from the God to mankind. They sat riveted on his every word. That very day some of the Sawi became Christians. Richardson went on to develop an entire theology based on the Peace Child in Sawi tradition. As he and his family modeled the person of the Peace Child, droves of Sawi came to know the Lord. This continued until one day, hundreds of Sawi from every tribe (tribes that had warred and cannibalized each other for many years) gathered together for a feast for the first time. A Sawi preacher stood up and read in his own language what few people in the history of the world have ever understood so well and so clearly: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; And the government shall be upon his shoulders; And he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). It was the best Christmas day the Richardsons had ever experienced. It was the best day the Sawi had ever known. It was Christmas in more ways than one. {3}

Christmas is humility -laying down our culture and embracing another, relinquishing religious pride and longing to share Grace with other needy people. Vulnerability (like the Richardsons, Marcus Young, Paul, and that baby in the manger) requires sacrifice -the willingness to adapt to others instead of making them adapt to you. Incarnation is the stuff from which the kingdom of God is constructed. It's the real beauty of Christmas, the kind of Christmas that should go with us everywhere we go (Athens, the jungle, your teen's high school, the mall, the office). Christmas was never meant to happen just once a year.

{1} Don Richardson (1984) Eternity in Their Hearts. Ventura, California: Regal Books (p. 9-16).

{2} Richardson, p. 97-98.

{3} Don Richardson (1976) Peace Child. Ventura, California: Regal Books.