Scrolling through “breaking news” on my cell phone the other day, a story caught my eye about a family in California who, while remodeling their bathroom, saw a note written inside the wall from a previous homeowner. The note said in part, “We remodeled this bathroom Summer 1995. If you are reading this, that means you’re remodeling the bathroom again. What’s wrong with the way we did it?”
Cute story. But does it qualify as “breaking news”? We’re big on small talk these days. Matters once considered trivial fill our news feeds and spark spirited debates on Facebook and Twitter. Is it vital for me to know about the latest Hollywood gossip? Do I really need to view the video clip of a passenger acting rudely on an airplane or read a story called “Parking ticket in Pennsylvania paid after more than 40 years”? Do I need to know about a bear relaxing in a hot tub or an octopus that supposedly predicted the results of Japan’s World Cup soccer matches? (These are real headlines that appeared on my cell phone recently.)
Small talk was plentiful in first-century Greece. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). Athens was a center of philosophy, art, athletics, and democracy, yet boredom and disillusionment filled the air. There in the city’s public marketplace, the Epicureans and Stoics derisively labeled the apostle Paul a “babbler,” which is ironic because he was presenting a message of monumental importance, “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (v. 18), while they were the ones babbling about inconsequential matters.
Asked to address city leaders at the Areopagus, Paul talked about significant issues like the fact that people who are naturally “very religious” shouldn’t worship in ignorance (vv. 22, 23). Paul told the Athenians about creation, another topic worthy of serious reflection. He introduced them to the God who “made the world and everything in it” (v. 24), who cannot be confined to “temples built by human hands,” who “gives everyone life and breath and everything else”—a God big enough to rule over all nations of the earth, yet who “is not far from any one of us” (vv. 24-28). Paul climaxed his message with a repudiation of idolatry, a call to repentance, a warning about God’s impending judgment, and a declaration that Jesus has been raised from the dead (vv. 29-31).
Paul’s listeners responded to the gospel the same way individuals respond to the gospel today. Some sneered at his message (v. 32). Others were curious but undecided, saying, “We want to hear you again on this subject” (v. 32). Still others believed in Christ, including an Areopagus member named Dionysius and a prominent woman named Damaris (v. 34). When we preach Christ today, we can expect similar reactions. Some will mock the gospel, others will believe it, and some will need more time to process and discuss it.
There are occasions when it’s fine to engage in small talk, friendly jokes, and harmless banter, but as Paul demonstrated in Athens, time is too short to waste on trivialities. Do we spend too much time on small talk while ignoring big issues like our relationship with God?
David Faust serves as the Associate Minister at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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