I spent five summers during high school and college working full-time at a sewage plant. I’ll spare you the details because Libby says that I should never mention in public that I had this job. I think that’s because the sermons of my first years of preaching were loaded with illustrations from those summers. Many of my first lessons about God and people started there. Mostly the same five or six guys would come back every summer, so it was kind of a close fellowship, nothing heroic, of course, like The Fellowship of the Ring, but a fellowship, nonetheless.
The first days on the job were rather overwhelming. Again, I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that we spent the day with our personal, short-handled, wide-tonged pitchfork. (Our favorite sport was flipping it in the air for two spins, seeing who could most often get it to stick upright in the sand. I was pretty good at that.)
What amazed me, though, was how quickly I adjusted to where I was working, how quickly a sewage plant became ‘normal.’ I came to not even notice the things that had so grossed me out during the first week. When any friend would visit me on the job I was always surprised at their reaction. They couldn’t believe that there was a place like this just a few miles from where they lived.
I had become totally desensitized to you-know-what. I was absolutely comfortable at a sewage plant.
This Sunday at The Gathering Church I will begin a three week series on a passage found in Acts 17:16-34., the apostle Paul’s visit to the great city of Athens. It begins with Paul’s experience as a tourist, and rather than being amazed at what he sees, he is “greatly distressed.” He is overwhelmed by the idols in the city. And, the interesting thing is that rather than condemn the Athenians, he seems to commend them, and then invites them to experience the good news of Christ.
Paul first takes the time to understand their hopes and values, meets them where they are, but is way too distressed to leave them in the same place.
You certainly can’t imagine Paul ever accepting the status quo of people basing the existence that God has given them on idols that cannot come close to representing God’s person, presence or purpose.
J.I. Packer, the author of Knowing God, says in another book, God in Our Midst, that our prayers, if we pray, indicate that we are not distressed enough about the spiritual condition of our world. We accept the idols that profane God and destroy people. We are comfortable with insanity. It’s normal to us. When we do get distressed we tend to become condemning and self-righteous. Paul became neither.
We want to learn how to be distressed. On behalf of God, and on behalf of people. Not judgmental, not self-righteous, but desperate for God’s glory and the welfare of all.