The Bob Dylan song, All Along the Watchtower, famously covered by Jimi Hendrix, contains an apocalyptic vision that plays out in the dialog of a joker and a thief. In the second verse, we hear,
“‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief, he kindly spoke 'There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.’”“The time for having a false view of reality is through,” Dylan’s thief tells the joker. Life isn’t, to paraphrase Jesus, about eating, drinking, and being merry. It’s not about acquiring the most toys before the hearse takes our bodies to the cemetery. Like the thief crucified on the cross next to Jesus, who repented and turned to Jesus in faith, Dylan’s thief insists, “It’s time to get real. The hour is getting late.” That truth has a special urgency for me today. Maybe it does for you too. We all know that the conditions Jesus said were necessary for His return had already been met during His time on the earth: That’s why He said that His return to bring an end to the life of this old, dying universe could come at any time. But these days of the most lethal pandemic to visit the planet in one-hundred years remind us that we are mortal, that this life is fragile, that, whether for us as individuals or as the human race, “the hour is getting late.” And that’s true whether every one of us gathered for worship today survive this dangerous moment and this world continues for another million years or if Jesus returns tomorrow. The promise of God’s Word is, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13, Joel 2:32). God’s Word tells us that faith comes when we hear the gospel Word of Jesus, the Christ and, through our hearing of this good news and the faith in Christ this Word from the Holy Spirit creates within us, we are saved from sin, death, and eternal separation from God. But, are we listening? Are we paying heed to this Word from God, the Word about Christ, that can save us? Or are we speaking falsely? Are we among those who treat all talk about God, Jesus, life, death, judgment, salvation, or the lateness of the hour, like a joke?
Our second lesson for today, Acts 17:16-31, presses these questions on us. Acts, you know, is the New Testament book of the Bible that tells what the Holy Spirit did in the lives of the first believers in Jesus through the first three decades or so after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. In today’s lesson, the apostle Paul enters the city of Athens. Athens was a major center of thought and debate. It was also, as Paul noticed while walking through the city, a place in which people worshiped all sorts of gods, a bit like today, when people have “pick and choose” religion, even when their religion is atheism in which they worship human brains, will power, or cunning. Paul, who believed in God and had encountered the risen Jesus, may have been tempted to lash out at the Athenians for their idolatries. But Paul had bigger fish to fry. He needed to share the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent--turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as their God and Savior--with these people.
All of which brings us to the last three verses of Paul’s message for the Athenians, a message for you and me and for the whole world this morning. Take a look, please, at verse 29. After quoting one of the Greeks’ poets who said that human beings were the offspring of a Deity the Greeks themselves didn’t know, Paul says: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring [as we are, since Genesis assures us that you and I are made in the image of God], we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.”
“Let us not speak falsely now,” Paul is saying. Human beings worship false idols like money, security, power, and status. Why? For some, it’s because it’s easier to worship a god you can see--whether it’s a statue erected in the town square or Ben Franklins in our wallets--than to worship the God you can’t see. But the bigger reason that human beings worship idols is our love of control. All of our favorite godlets are things that, if we can acquire them, we think we can control to our own benefit. We’re prone to idolatry because we worship ourselves: our comfort, our freedom, our power. But, Paul says, this is a lie we tell ourselves. We are not in control and the quicker we realize that, the better off we’ll be.
Then Paul says in verse 30 of our lesson: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” God is compassionate. God is patient with us. But Paul tells the Athenians (and us), “Now that you’ve heard the truth that you’re born in bondage to sin and can only be freed from God the Son Jesus, Who has overcome sin and death, you can’t go on living like you’ve been living.” Paul says it’s time to repent. To repent is to turn to God in sorrow for sin and in recognition of our need of God. When we repent in Jesus’ name, God not only forgives us for our sin, He gives us new and ever-renewing life with Him that never ends. Because of the power of sin and death, The Small Catechism reminds us that we need to live in “daily repentance and sorrow for sin” so that “the new person should come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Finally, in verse 31 of our lesson, Paul tells us, “For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” The phrase translated as with justice is more literally, with righteousness. When Jesus returns, an event which His resurrection from the dead assures is going to happen, He will see two kinds of people. He will judge each person according to the version of righteousness they cling to in this life.
- To those who have clung to the notions of righteousness or right living favored by this world--whether it’s salvation by good works or material wealth or influence or ease, God will give this world and the eternal destruction for which it’s ticketed.
- To those who, like the thief on the cross at the last moment, cling to Christ alone for righteousness, God will give everlasting life in His kingdom.
But all of this only makes the call that Paul issued to the Athenians and that he issues to us today all the more urgent. First, we must understand that the God we know in Jesus is a living God not to be ignored. Second, we need each day to turn from sin and turn to the God we meet in Jesus. He alone gives life to those who trust in Him. And third, we need to cling in faith to Jesus. As a gracious gift, He covers us with the perfect righteousness of God so that when it comes our time to be judged, God won’t see us in our sin but will only see the Savior Jesus to Whom we cling. Dear friends, the hour is getting late; today and everyday, cling to Jesus Christ alone. Amen