A police officer in Houston, Texas, whose job it is to investigate identity theft cases, was the victim of identity theft himself — three times!
Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information — like account numbers or Social Security numbers — and uses them to take money from those accounts, or open new accounts and max them out.
And it’s the fastest-growing crime in the U.S.
About 1 in 16 Americans has been the victim of identity theft.
Lieutenant Mike said someone opened an online trading account with his personal information and stole $10,000 under his name.
Then the same thing happened again.
And again. All trading accounts.
When someone steals your identity, it makes you feel like they’ve stolen a part of who you are.
And, of course, if we don’t guard our identities and take precautions, then we’re actually opening the door to having our identities stolen.
And it’s easy not to.
Identity theft is still pretty new to us.
And we don’t always think people can gain access to our information so readily.
And what’s dangerous, is that this complacency seems to just be the way of the world.
We’re going along, living our lives, then one day we realize that our identity has been stolen.
The Unknown God
The Apostle Paul in our reading today in Acts 17.22-31 runs into something similar in Athens, Greece.
He and Silas, his ministry companion, are traveling all over the region spreading the Good News.
Remember, Paul was a Pharisee who was persecuting Christians at one time.
But God took hold of Paul and changed him, and now Paul, who had been Saul, is setting up churches and preaching the Gospel of Jesus.
And he ends up in Athens.
Athens. The heart of a polytheistic culture that worshipped multiple gods and idols.
A place where knowledge ruled, like with the Stoics, and also the love of philosophy, like the Epicureans practiced.
And as Paul is introducing God and the Scripture to them, they are curious.
And they invite Paul to come speak before the high counsel, called Areopagus.
Now Paul, you see, came from a well-to-do Jewish family and was afforded a world-class education.
Not only was he fluent in the Law — the Old Testament — but he understood other cultures, languages and the art of arguing, what we call rhetoric.
Athens was very different; the people believed in gods such as Zeus and Apollo and Athena, and they believed in their own wisdom.
They didn’t know of a God who requires no acts in order to bless them.
A God whose own Son served as a sacrifice to secure that blessing…
That’s all new to the Athenians.
And so Paul uses his own wisdom to make his point resonate with this group of philosophers.
He tells them that as he was passing into the city, he noticed an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” (Verse 23)
You see, the Greeks wanted to make sure that they were worshipping every god — and if there were gods that they weren't aware of, then they wanted to recognize them somehow.
And Paul tells them about the One True God.
Beginning in Verse 23: “What therefore you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Right here, what Paul is beginning to do is systematically disassemble the Greeks’ entire belief system.
Paul tells them that this unknown god that they are looking for is found in the One True God.
It’s not enough to tell them that this altar is to that god, but that there are no other gods as well.
They have it all wrong.
And because they don’t know of the unknown god, their identity is misplaced.
They’ve let the wisdom of the world steal their very identity — their identity in the One True God who created them.
And if they are putting their worship into statues and precious stones, they are wasting their time.
Their identity is God, and Paul quotes one of the Greeks’ own poets: “In him we live and move and have our being.”
That’s the God you’re looking for!
Paul is pretty well-versed…
And even without mentioning Jesus’s name at this point, Paul tells them the way to the One True God: Through “a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (verse 31)
They hear the message, but they aren’t converted on the spot.
But they say they want to hear more…
See, Paul is planting a seed.
In fact, the Greeks without realizing what they are saying, call Paul a babbler.
But the literal translation of this is “seed-picker” in the Greek.
It means a bird who drops seeds all around has she flies.
Paul is dropping seeds. God takes care of the rest.
What was meant to be a disparaging remark ends up being downright prophetic.
Identity in Christ
Paul is telling them that their identity in the Creator has been usurped, stolen.
And the Greeks had let that happen by trying to create gods with their own human hands.
Their own identity is unknown because they are worshipping gods that can’t be known because they are false.
And if they’re believing in something unknown, then how is that reflected within them?
In as much, they have no true identity.
Instead, everything they believe in is in the power of their own minds and hands.
They bow to blank, unknown images.
They became incredibly self-centered.
But we have identity in God through Christ…
And what does that look like?
It looks selfless.
It is caring and nurturing.
It is of togetherness, community.
And it is acting in love first.
Why is this our identity?
Because this is how we were created by God.
The litmus test is our hearts.
Jesus says in Matthew 15.18: “But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart.”
So we can ask ourselves what’s in our hearts?
How are we defined?
Here are some facts:
God made us to glorify God, to live and love in a world that helps others to live and love freely like we do.
In case we forgot — and we do — God gave us some rules to follow.
And when we ignored them, God gave us God’s self in the form of Jesus, who died for our turning away and brought us back to God.
Jesus was a concrete example of how we are to live. Still is.
We have a roadmap and some examples called the New Testament to show us that.
In short, we were designed by God in God’s image to do all of these things.
If Paul dropped by
So what if Paul was to just drop by today.
What would he find?
I think he would see Walmart and the throngs of people buying stuff they don’t need, but what the world tells them they need.
He’d see rows of shiny new, expensive cars and large suburban homes that have to be financed over long periods of time, meaning people are working long hours at jobs that keep them away from spending time in church or with family just to pay off those shiny new cars and houses that the world tells us we need.
He’d see people having online relationships rather than personal relationships, because the world tells us this is how we act now.
And he’d see families and people torn apart by the ravages of drugs and other addictions attempting to fill the place of something we might call the unknown god.
In fact, all of these things are altars to the unknown god.
They are simple illusions we’ve created to help us find who we are in this world.
Except the problem is, like the Greeks who Paul is arguing with, those unknown gods aren’t gods at all.
They are things.
None of them can we take with us when we die.
None of them even last forever in this life.
A Big God
It’s been said a thousand times, but I’ll repeat it:
We were created by a Big God.
The God who created the universe that we’ve only begun to see and understand.
The God who created all life and all living things.
A God who created true Love, and sacrificed that Love for us just to be with God forever.
Do we embrace that identity?
Or do we hide from it?
Do we only use it when we think it’s appropriate — like in church?
Or have we substituted it for all those other unknown gods that can’t do anything for us?
“…Too small for me”
I was talking with a friend of mine recently about how the name Christian has gotten such a bad rap in our culture, that lots of times I don’t even say that word in certain circles because of all the connotations that come with it.
Zealot, fundamentalist, obnoxious, ultra-conservative, hypocrite…
And I realized that by not using it to define us, we’re losing our true identity as Christians.
That if people really knew and understood Christ, we wouldn’t have so much disparity and confusion over that term.
But we are giving up our identity.
Let’s not do that.
God is big enough to handle the criticism.
Just like what Paul got in Athens.
We must move forward unafraid.
There’s a great scene in the movie “Ragamuffin” about the life and death of one of the most prolific Christian songwriters of our generation, Rich Mullins.
And Rich knew a pastor named Brennan Manning, who has to set Rich straight about his identity in Christ.
In the very powerful sermon Manning says this:
“… you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God. We make God in our own image, and he winds up being as fussy and rude and narrow-minded and judgmental and legalistic and unloving and unforgiving as we are.
“I’ve been in churches in Bangor, Maine, Miami, Seattle, San Diego and St. Louis, and, honest, the God of so many Christians I meet is too small for me.”
So we really have to ask ourselves: If we are created in God’s image, and God is bigger than anything we can image, then why doesn’t our own image match that?
What god are we worshipping that makes our lives so small?
We have to stop looking for identity in every place but God.
Don’t let the world tell us who we are; let God tell us who we are.
* Because the world tells us that life is hard.
* That love never lasts, and that we must live in fear.
* All we have is hope in our own selves, and so we build walls to preserve it.
These are all lies that the world feeds us.
Live with the world as our unknown god and our identity, and we will live in desperation and in fear. We will live in false hope and a dark afterlife.
But live with the One True God as our identity, and we will truly know true peace.
We will know unconditional, perfect love.
And we will know faith in an afterlife that reunites us with our Creator and those whom we love forever!
Knowing our true identity changes everything.
Let’s stop building altars and identities for the unknown.
And let’s simply worship the One who is always made known through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
More on identity theft: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/02/06/identity-theft-hit-all-time-high-2016/97398548/
More on Lt. Mike: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/identitytheft/real-stories-of-identity-theft
More on “Ragamuffin”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_a7Z4Wg2bNo