In his flight from persecution at Thessalonica and Berea, Paul waited at Athens for Silas and Timotheus. While there, “his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” (Acts 17:16.)
Paul, as you remember, had, in a great experience, gained for himself a knowledge that the Lord was not an impersonal essence, but rather an individual so near that He could and did speak to Paul, and gave instruction as to what Paul should do for his own welfare. (See Acts 9.) it was this knowledge which caused Paul’s spirit to be stirred in him as he beheld the idolatry of the city.
Not only did such knowledge stir his spirit, but it also gave him the desire and the strength and the courage to do what he could to enlighten the people of Athens. He took every occasion to teach “them Jesus, and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18.) Some called him a babbler; others said, “He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods.” (Acts 17:18.) So much attention did he attract that many people gathered about to learn what he had to say.
“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
“For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
“Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
“And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
“That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
“Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” (Acts 17:22–29; italics added.)
This sermon of Paul’s was preached some nineteen hundred years ago, but it has its application to us. True, the intervening years have brought great changes in some things, notably in the fields of science and industry; but with respect to the subject of Paul’s sermon, the world today is in about the same status as it was then, for God to many is still an “unknown God,” and therefore ignorantly worshipped. Perhaps he is not thought of as being “like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device”; yet superstition and idolatry, in some forms, are still the order of the day. Some deny the very existence of God; others define him as “cosmic energy,” as though he might be a current of electricity. He has been spoken of as “the first great cause,” and as the “universal consciousness.” God would not be described in such vague terms if men had the knowledge of him possessed by Paul.
There are some people in the world today, however, as there were in Paul’s day, who know that God is their father and that he is not far from them. If they were to speak on the subject, they would tell you that of all their possessions this knowledge is the most precious. From it they obtain power to resist temptation, courage in times of danger, companionship in hours of loneliness, and comfort in sorrow. This knowledge of God gives them faith and hope that tomorrow will be better than today. It is an anchor to their souls which gives purpose to life, though all men and things about them be in confusion and chaos. They know that such conditions have come because men are without that knowledge and are therefore not guided by God.
My message to you today is that every person may be the possessor of this priceless knowledge and may enjoy the blessings it brings, for, as Paul says, we are the offspring of God, who is no respecter of persons but wills that all men should come unto him. He it was who said:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30.)
The price of obtaining this knowledge is to take upon us the “yoke” of Christ, which means to follow the way he marked out. The gate to that way is a desire to know God, vitalized with a determination to do what is necessary to gain that knowledge.
To obtain it, there are many things which must be done. They cannot all be discussed here, but the approach is through prayer. No person ever called upon God in vain, if he truly prayed in faith. The true and certain knowledge of God was restored to the earth in this day through the boy prophet, Joseph Smith, as a result of prayer.
There is an example of the way to pray and of an answer to prayer in the life of President Lincoln. General Daniel E. Sickles had learned that before the portentous battle of Gettysburg, upon the result of which, perhaps, the fate of the nation hung, President Lincoln was apparently free from the oppressive care which frequently weighed him down. After it was all past, the general asked Lincoln how that was. He said:
“Well, I will tell you how it was. In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him that this war was His, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Then and there I made a solemn vow to Almighty God that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him, and He did stand by you boys, and I will stand by Him. And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into His own hands, and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.” (John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln—Man of God, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927, pp. 339–40.)
Lincoln had a great desire to reach God. He prayed mightily in the strength of great humility. He did not just ask God to stand by him, but he promised to stand by the Lord. He received his answer in the sweet comfort which crept into his soul. Lincoln was very close to God, and the Lord was very near to him.
In these uneasy days of fearful suspense and tragedy, there is comfort and strength in the knowledge that God is our Heavenly Father, that he is not a distant, indefinable abstraction, but a loving and understanding parent so near that we can have daily communication with him. He can reach each of us with his strengthening and protecting power.
That we may have the desire and the courage and the humility to gain that knowledge and enjoy the fruits thereof is my humble prayer.