The phrase comes from the Apostle Paul. In our passage, Paul is in Athens, the intellectual capital of the ancient world. But Paul could see through the intellectual sophistication of the Athenians to the tragic reality just beneath the surface. Paul could see that something was missing from their lives. Paul could see that they were searching for God, groping after the one they did not know, the one they called “the unknown God.”
As I picture the Athenians listening to Paul that day, they were uneasy despite so much that seemed good about their world. They felt the gnawing emptiness at the center of their world, at the center of their lives.
We will never know if that is what they felt. But that is what many people feel today. Many feel a dis-ease lurking just beneath the surface. We live in one of the richest and most powerful nations in all of human history. And yet many worry that our lives, our world, lacks pattern and purpose and meaning.
That is truly tragic. Human beings need meaning. We need to believe that our lives make sense, that our lives have some purpose.
That is the basic lesson of a book called Man’s Search for Meaning by a psychologist named Viktor Frankl. During World War Two, Frankl spent three years in concentration camps. Unlike the overwhelming majority, Frankl survived. His book is his reflection on what made his survival possible.
Frankl’s conclusion was simple. If people had no clear reason to live, no clear purpose, no sense of meaning in their lives, they died. They might die anyway. There was no way to guarantee survival in the camps. But if they were to have any hope of living, inmates needed something to live for.
For most people in the United States today, the issue is not survival. But people who lack a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives tend to act out in all kinds of dysfunctional, self-destructive, anti-social ways. We see that all around us all the time.
Christians are not immune to the problems of our world, of course. We struggle with the same questions as everyone else. We cannot understand the reason for some of the things that happen in the world around us. We cannot always see what it is that we are supposed to be doing.
But even if we do not have all the answers, we know at least that there is an answer. There is an answer in Jesus Christ.
And even if we do not know the whole truth, we know the deep truth.
The deep truth of our lives is that we are beloved children of God. The deep truth of our lives is that we are members of the body of Christ. The deep truth of our lives is that God gives us spiritual gifts and that God calls us to use those gifts for the common good. The deep truth of our lives is that we are in process of becoming the people God invites us to be.
That is the deep truth of who we are.
The deep truth of our world is that it is God’s creation. The deep truth of our world is that it is very good. The deep truth of our world is that God redeems and restores it. The deep truth of our world is that it is in process of becoming God’s own kingdom.
Those truths—the deep truth of who we are as God’s children and the deep truth of our world as God’s creation—those truths gives our lives meaning and purpose. Faith in those truths is itself one of the greatest gifts that God gives us.
And all around us are people who have not received that gift, people who struggle with a sense of meaninglessness and despair, people who grope after a God they do not know.
Paul was there to help the ancient Athenians who were struggling, searching, groping after God. Paul did not condemn them. On the contrary, Paul told them the deep truth of their lives and of their world.
Paul told them that God was not far from them. Paul told them that they live and move and have their very being in God. Paul told them that they too were God’s offspring. Paul pointed them to the living and true God who loved them and was already at work among them, even though God was unknown to them.
What Paul says to them, Paul says to us when we need to hear it, as we sometimes do.
And what Paul says to them, Christ commissions us to say to our contemporaries when they need to hear it, as they often do.
Even more than ancient Athens, our world can seem hopelessly lost. Our world can seem impossibly chaotic. Our world can seem meaningless.
But we know better. We know that God is close. We know that God is good. We know that God’s kingdom is coming. And we need to share that knowledge.
Of course we have to do it in ways that are appropriate to who we are. I was once invited by a more evangelical pastor friend of mine to do a little street corner preaching. He wanted me to stand on the corner and call the world to repentance. That was not going to happen.
But we do need to share the good news with the searchers all around us.
Many years ago, a friend of mine worried that his life had no meaning. He was agnostic, but he decided to go to seminary. Even though he was not religious, he wanted to be with people who were because he knew that the Church is in the meaning business, that God is the key to a meaningful life.
My friend was searching for someone like Paul to help him see the deep truth that God really is near, that we really do live and move and have our being in God, that we really are God’s offspring.
Part of our purpose is to help people like my friend. We don’t have all the answers. But we can point to the One who does!
And we can help the people around us to see the incredible gift that God offers us: the gift of grace, the gift of hope, the gift of the Spirit of truth, the gift of a life filled with abundance and joy, the gift of faith and love, the gift of freedom to be the people we truly want to be, the people God calls us to be.
The sense of meaning and purpose that God gives us is what kept people going in the concentration camps. The sense of meaning and purpose that God gives us is what my friend was looking for. The sense of meaning and purpose that God gives us is cause for great gratitude and love. The sense of meaning and purpose that God gives us is the good news we are called to share with a lost world groping after an unknown God.
My prayer is that we can come to know God more and more deeply, that we can recognize the deep truth of our lives and our world, and that we can help others to find their own meaning and purpose in God.
In the name of Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together. Amen.