“Be Prepared”

May 29, 2011 John 14:15-21 Acts 17:22-25 1 Peter 3:13-22

Nearly every Sunday I ask if you have seen God at work this week. This morning I want to be more specific and I want to ask if you have seen God, in this church, where it stands at 123 W. Church Street? Do you see God here today? I do… but you’ll have to wait a bit before I explain. (Acts 17:22-25)
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Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else Paul says that God is not found in a building. We don’t find God here because of the stained glass windows or the high ceiling or the beautiful decorations or the stonework on the outside. From Monday through Saturday there are many times when, although this is God’s house, God is not here. We do not find God in temples (or churches) that are built by human hands. Instead, we find God in this place because God inhabits the hearts of those who love him. I see God in this place because God inhabits the hearts of his people. I see God when I see Gibby Betts and others from our church volunteering to help schoolchildren learn about Jesus at the Haven. I see God when Ron Preston and other Christian men unload truckloads of food at St Vincent’s. I see God every week when Janet Smith and a dozen other faithful men and women arrive at this church on Sunday morning to teach children and adults in Sunday school. In each act of faithfulness, in each act of Christ-likeness, the people of God reveal to the world who God is, and what he looks like. In the same way, in recent weeks I have often encouraged you to tell others about Jesus. I know that this intimidates, even terrifies some of you. I have heard people say that they simply don’t know how to do it. But you know what? You don’t have to be any kind of expert. In 1 Peter 3:15-16, the apostle Peter teaches that we should always have something to say. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. You don’t have to be an expert but every one of you knows how to tell a story. You do it all the time. You run into a friend at the grocery store or while walking down the street and you tell them about the bargain that you got at Wal-Mart or about the new grandchild that’s coming or about the funny thing that happened at your pick-up basketball game on Tuesday. We tell stories all the time and so when Peter says that we should
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be prepared to give an answer, he isn’t talking about having some prewritten speech about theology, he is only reminding us to tell the stories that we already know. I suspect that at this point, some of you are wondering what I am talking about and so I want to spend some time giving you an example. In the winter of 1999, Patti and I received a phone call that we had finally been invited to travel to Vladivostok, Russia to adopt and bring home two baby boys. We had spent most of the previous year assembling, copying, verifying, validating, certifying and apostile-ing piles of required documents for our state and federal governments as well as for the Russian government and we had hoped to make this trip before Christmas. Unfortunately, someone thought that we wouldn’t want to travel on Christmas Day so we were delayed and then delayed again when the Russian judge in charge of adoptions went on vacation but finally the day came early in 1999 after the boys had celebrated their first birthday as orphans. We could tell stories all day about that trip but for the purposes of today’s story I will keep things a bit shorter. After our experiences in China while adopting Lina, we expected that the orphanage was probably understaffed and underfunded but that didn’t really prepare us for what we found. The orphanage had very few resources except for the caring of the workers that were there. We had carried with us, with the help of my sister-in-law who is a pharmacist, an entire carry-on full of children’s medicines such as Benadryl and Tylenol but when we arrived expecting to see shelves that didn’t have much, we found shelves that had nothing at all. Even worse, when we arrived at the orphanage we only found one of the twin boys that we were expecting to take home. Noah was at the orphanage alone. Apparently, some weeks before, Jonah had contracted a case of dysentery and had been taken to what was referred to as the local “baby hospital.” That afternoon, along with our interpreter, we travelled to the baby hospital only to discover a situation that was perhaps even more desperate than what we had found at the orphanage. There we found Jonah, who in a video recorded only a few months before had been playful and chubby, who was now listless and bone thin. Literally, when you held him up, the skin just hung from his arms, his eyes were sunken and dull and you could almost count each rib. He was clearly not well. What was worse was that the baby hospital had no more resources than the orphanage had. The hospital, like our hotel and everywhere else, had running water that came out of the tap an odd shade of orange. Beyond that, we discovered that because the government was bankrupt, the hospital staff had not been paid in months and had been sent home weeks before only to be recalled because of a serious flu outbreak. In our hotel we had sterilized water, a supply of baby formula as well as antibiotics and other medicines. We knew that if we could take Jonah back to the hotel with us, we could provide better care than the doctor could at the hospital. The problem was that government policy would not allow this to happen. Policy and procedure required that the child be well for several days before they would allow him to be released and, because the doctor was in line for a promotion, she was disinclined to bend the rules. At this point, we were unsure of whether or not Jonah would be able to go home with us. Long before we had completed our drive back to our hotel, we began to pray. In the evening we had access to a handful of computers with email access in a hotel lounge. In Russia, in 1999, this was very progressive. Each evening we sent email home with reports of how we were doing. On this particular evening, we asked a few family and friends for prayer. In the days that followed we took formula and a few supplies to the baby hospital for Jonah. We also discovered that while it was against the rules for us to provide supplies or medicines to the doctor (in fact, it was against the rules for her to tell anyone that the hospital needed anything), the doctor allowed us to go for a walk with her. We walked across town and visited a grocery store that had almost nothing in it and we stopped at the local pharmacy. There the doctor ordered a few things that she felt that Jonah needed and then
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looked the other way while we paid the pharmacist. Still, she wouldn’t budge and wouldn’t allow Jonah to return with us even though, by this time we had been to court and had, I think, completed the adoption. One evening, when we were in our hotel caring for Noah we also checked our email. Although we were doing this with some regularity, one day in particular stands out in my mind. That evening we received news that people were praying for us and for Jonah but not just our family and not just our church. We discovered that our friends had passed the news on to other friends, that our church had passed the news on to others and that our adoption agency had passed the news onto all of the other families on their email list. We discovered that the people of God, in places all across the country and beyond, were praying for us. During this time, which lasted for nearly three weeks, we were racking our brains to think of any solution that we could. We were contemplating calls to our embassy and to our congressmen to see if they could intervene in any way and finally, just two days before our flight home, the doctor relented and allowed us to take Jonah back to the hotel with us. We never really knew why she did it. Jonah still wasn’t really well. According to the rules, the doctor wasn’t really allowed to let us take Jonah with us. Except that the people of God were praying. Somehow, God heard the prayers of his people and changed the hearts of a few people so that rules could be bent in the heart of the former Soviet Union. From halfway around the world we knew that God does not live in temples built out of brick and stone but in the hearts of his people wherever they may be. For our family, on that day, the church was clearly not a place but a collection of people who were spread across our nation and beyond. That’s my story for today. What’s your story? I know that you each have one. What is it that makes Ron Preston spend time each month, in his retirement, hauling groceries for poor people when he could be fishing (and Ron is passionate about fishing)? What is it that drives Janet Smith to devote so much of her time and energy in her golden years investing in the lives of children? Each of you has a story. When Peter says that we should be prepared to give and answer, he is not saying that you need to memorize some stuff about New Testament theology, what he is saying that that you need to tell your story. When people ask you why you do what you do, be ready. Tell them your story.

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