To an Unknown God

What do you think it means to be “holy”? In this day and age, when so many folks in our popular culture compete for attention in the media, when loud and fast and explosive are considered values somehow, the word holy may seem outdated, old-fashioned, unreachable.

If you look up the definition of holy, you’ll find that Merriam-Webster says it means, “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” The Greek word for holy is a hagios and it means sacred, pure, and worthy. In Hebrew, the root of the word used for holy means “set apart.”

So we get the idea that to be “holy” is to be something special, something pure, set apart from the daily dramas, struggles, and conflicts of our chaotic and desire-driven world. It might be a bit of a stretch to imagine it’s possible for us to one day be holy, but we Friends do believe that the seed of holiness—that of God—is truly present in every life.

In my work as a hospice chaplain, whenever I meet a new patient, I do what’s known as a spiritual assessment. I listen deeply to what the new patient shares about his or her life, how he describes his blessings, and what he says about his challenges. One of the things I listen for is what’s known as “awareness of the holy.” Isn’t that a lovely term? You can hear that a person has an “awareness of the holy” when they mention God’s part in their stories, saying things like, “I felt such peace…I knew God was close.” Or, “God worked it out so that all my kids could be here this weekend.” Sometimes people express their “awareness of the holy” by talking about the beauty of God’s world, seeing God’s hand in it. It reminds me of famous lines you’ll recognize from Joyce Kilmer’s poem:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

So “awareness of the holy” is our ability to recognize when grace is close, when we feel a sense of God’s love or peace present with us, when we feel our hearts lift and we know that all is well. When we’re aware of the holy in our lives we feel a sense of God’s ongoing companionship—not only God’s intervention in the big needs of our lives, although God does do that, and not only as a direct answer to prayer—which of course God does as well. But the little, surprising moments, tiny gifts of gladness, that feel like smiles from God meant just for us.

The prophet Jeremiah was a major prophet in Old Testament times who had a deep and abiding awareness of the holy. He live his whole life in touch with God, and as a result is claimed by the great religions as a prophet in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He lived from 650 to 570 BC—centuries before the birth of Christ–and his time as a prophet spanned the reign of five different kings. The book of Jeremiah opens with a story of God telling Jeremiah as a child not to worry about what to say to people, because God himself would give him the words to speak. Jeremiah would spend the whole of his life trying to turn the hearts of the children of Israel back toward God, and he was often mocked, persecuted, and imprisoned.

Jeremiah traveled throughout the countryside, preaching against greed, idolatry, and false prophets. In that time, the children of Israel had all but forgotten God and were worshipping and making offerings to the god Ba’al, who scholars say was the same deity as the storm and rain god of the Caananites. As had so often happened, God’s children forgot God after their major crises were past, praying instead to this idol they hoped would bring the conditions they needed for healthy crops and happy herds.

But Jeremiah’s whole life had been spent in the company of the one true God—he was all about awareness of the holy–and he urgently preached destruction and mayhem if the children didn’t see the error of their ways and come back to right worship. In our Old Testament verses for today, Jeremiah makes it clear that nothing this world offers is more valuable than our awareness of the holy—the recognition of God’s presence—in our very own lives:

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Whatever goals we have sought in this world, Jeremiah says, whatever we’ve achieved on our own, it’s not something real or lasting, not something worth boasting about. Not the wisdom gained in years of education; not the heights of physical, emotional, or mental strength; not all the gold in the world can compare to the singular grace of knowing and understanding God. God is the one who restores love, justice, and righteousness in the lives of those who trust him. And what God delights in, God will create, when our lives are steered by an awareness of the holy and a desire for companionship with God.

Just 40 years after Jeremiah’s time, one of the world’s first known philosophers—Heraclitus—was born in the town of Ephesus in the Persian Empire. This is the same city of Ephesus where Paul would visit as an ambassador for Christ some five centuries later.  Heraclitus was born to affluent and powerful parents, but he traded his position in society for the more solitary task of searching for truth. He was often considered negative and contrary, compared to other writers of the time—the same could be said for Jeremiah, who preached repentance and judgment. Last week, I finished reading the only remaining writing from Heraclitus’ famous philosophical work, On Nature. Just portions of the manuscript have survived the last 2,600 years, under the title Fragments.

Like Jeremiah, Heraclitus wasn’t satisfied with the things the world trades for truth and in his own way he sought to unveil—for himself and others—the awareness of the holy. In his Fragments, he writes, “Initiation …into the ancient mysteries so honored among men mocks holiness.” This sounds much like Jeremiah, doesn’t it, saying the wisdom of this world is nothing to boast about. Heraclitus also wrote, “They raise their voices at stone idols as a man might argue with his doorpost, they have understood so little of the gods.”

Isn’t that what God said through Jeremiah to the idol-worshipping children of Israel? “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.”

More than 500 years later, when Paul made his famous journey to Athens, scripture says he was deeply disturbed to find that the city was full of idols. Paul went from place to place in the town, speaking in synagogues and squares, talking about Jesus and his life and resurrection. The scholars and philosophers among them wondered who this man was and what he was teaching. It seemed to them he was introducing some new kind of foreign god, one they had never heard about before. And t, in the story we heard today in our New Testament reading, Paul connects the dots for them, helping these learned and devout people realize that the small-g god they were worshipping—inscribed on the altar as TO AN UNKNOWN GOD—was the God that Paul knew personally, through Christ–the God who values love and justice and righteousness and who directs our steps day by day. He said,

“Therefore what you worship as something unknown, I now proclaim to you.
24The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands. 25Nor is He served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26From one mand He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.
27God intended that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. 28‘For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.” 29Therefore, being offspring of God, we should not think that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by man’s skill and imagination.

In our more modern time, Quaker philosopher, theologian, and historian, Rufus Jones, mentioned “the unknown God” in his book, The Message of Quakerism. He writes hopefully about how knowing and understanding God intimately, in our daily lives, inspires us to do what we can to bring love, justice, and righteousness to our world. Our faith flows into action. A living faith like that—with an awareness of the holy– means living by our testimonies, not simply for our own peace and happiness, but to create a better world for everyone. Jones writes,

“Most of us have lived through a period which has seen the new birth of Quakerism… There came over the body a new breath of the spirit. A new sense of the purpose and meaning of the Incarnation awoke. Hearts that had morbidly looked within, and whose whole gospel was introspection, began to beat with concern for other souls, and longed to share in the apostolic service which is never finished so long as there are those who have no God or an unknown God.
Our future depends wholly upon the degree in which we prove true to the leading of the same Spirit who gave us birth and who re-anointed us for service…The message of the Lord is, “Go forward.” … Unless we can meet the difficulties of this century and can speak a convicting message to those who are adrift and perplexed, unless we can hold our truth in the face of new light and profound search, unless we have something that fits the condition of life and thought now, we have waked up to no purpose.”

Jones’ message, written actually one hundred years ago, is still relevant to Friends and our practice today. Like Christ’s visit to George Fox on the hillside in England so long ago, we too can live in touch with the light and love of our inward teacher. We can grow our awareness of the holy in our daily lives, fanning that little inner spark into a warming and lovely flame. And that feeling, energy, inspiration is what draws others to us and speaks to their condition, offering something real to those who find the idols of power, riches, fame, and social media likes empty and unfulfilling. So many people in our world today yearn for what would truly fill them and give them rest and peace. As they discover their own awareness of the holy—recognizing perhaps for the first time the unknown God they’ve yearned for all their lives—they may realize they have never walked alone. And that realization is heart-changing, and life-changing, and world-changing. And it is also God’s delight.


Note: The image shown is a plaque that hangs over Carl Jung’s doorway: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

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