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Sermon: If You Can Read This, Then You Are Almost Close Enough

May 29, 2011

Acts 17:22-31

When I was in high school, my dad and I went hiking early one Saturday morning.  We arrived back at the van a little after lunch.  We started loading our gear when my dad said, annoyance in his voice, “Do you know where my keys are?”

At first, I was calm about this.  I looked in all the locks to see if he had left them there, or in the ignition.  I looked on the floor of the van.  I searched through our gear.  No keys.  After a few minutes of this, I was starting to get a little concerned.  We had hiked all over those hills, and there was no way we could retrace our steps in the event the keys had been lost out there in the brush.  And we were about 30 miles from home.  There were no cell phones for us then, either.  I started to get myself ready for an even longer hike.

Then, as I was just on the edge of despair, I looked at my dad to speak to him, and this is what I saw…The car keys were clenched between his teeth, just dangling there as if they had been playing a practical joke on us.  After my dad opened the van, he decided he needed both hands, so he slipped the key between his teeth and immediately forgot.  For 20 minutes, we had searched high and low, frustration building all the while, and the stupid keys had been right there all the time.  Paul said, “[God] did this so that they would look for him, and perhaps find him as they felt around for him.  Yet God is actually not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27, Today’s English Version).

*     *     *     *     *

          During the seven Sundays of Easter, the Lectionary uses the book of Acts in place of the Old Testament lesson.  Acts is the story of the early Church.  It is part two of the Gospel according to Luke.  It traces the story of scared, confused apostles as they carried the Good News from Jerusalem to the wider world.  It tells us how the Church grew in love, compassion and the number of those who were baptized.

Today, Acts gives us part of Paul’s story, our first great missionary to the wider world.  For Paul, the pinnacle of the mission field consisted of the great, ancient civilizations of Greece and the newer cities of the Roman Empire.  As Paul moved toward Rome, he was sure to visit Athens, home of the greatest philosophers of the West, home to a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses, home to great architecture and greater statesmen.

And so, when Paul first arrived, he did what anyone would do.  He went on a tour of the city.  One of the places he visited was the Areopagus, a hill that, during classical civilization, was a seat of government and law.  By the time Paul arrived, the Areopagus had apparently become a public gathering place for philosophers and other intellectuals.  Some Stoic philosophers had heard Paul’s teaching about Jesus, and they said, “This is very interesting.  Tell us more.”  And so Paul, who always looked for an opportunity to talk about what God had done through Jesus, did precisely that.

He said, “As I looked around your city, I saw how very religious you are.  I also saw an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”  Please note what Paul did not say.  He did not say, “I saw all your idols and your temples dedicated to false gods.  Boy, you people don’t know anything.”  Paul did not ridicule them or their beliefs.  He was respectful to them and found a point of contact.  He met them on their terms and did not expect them to meet him only on his terms.

Paul then said, “What you worship as unknown, I will make known to you.  You worship God who created the heavens and the earth.  God created all people and all nations.  God had hopes that we human beings would search for God, would grope for God, and just maybe we would find God.  But even so, God has never been far from us.  God is already close, as close as breath.  Even your poets have written, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

In the family of humanity, there are a lot of searchers and seekers.  Maybe you are one of them.  Some people have a restless spirit that keeps driving them to find something.  In an earlier day, they were the explorers, the pioneers, the cowboys, the astronauts, the college students backpacking across Europe.  Their true home was on the move, looking, seeking, finding.

But even those of us who live more stable lives, who live in the same house their entire lives, even we frequently search.  We look for love, belonging, meaning to our lives.  We spend a surprising amount of time in this life searching for our keys.  Frequently, we look for, we grope for, the divine, the presence of God.

But like searching for those keys after the hike, there are lots of possible places to do our searching.  We could have backtracked and hiked back over miles of country to find the elusive keys.  We could have—and did—turned that van inside out to find the keys.  We could have groveled around in the dust looking for a dropped set of keys.  But in the end, we discovered that they were so close, almost too close.  Like the prodigal son, we sometimes travel to a faraway country looking for that missing piece of ourselves, that piece that makes us whole and happy and satisfied.  The piece that makes us feel loved and accepted.  The piece that gives us the courage to reach out to the world with confidence and compassion.  And when we come to ourselves in that faraway country, we understand that God had been that close all along.  “In him we live and move and have our being.”

And so Paul says, “We have been ignorant.  We have imagined that our salvation could be found in things of gold and silver and stone and gadgets and clothes and careers.  We have been ignorant, but no more.  Now we repent.  We change our minds and our lives, and we open up our arms to the God who is already right there.  God will make us truly right and will judge us righteous through his love.  The assurance of that comes in the fact that God raised from the dead the very one chosen to judge us all, Jesus Christ.  That proves God’s love for us.”

That was Paul’s message to those Athenians who were so smart.  They knew all the philosophies, all the arguments, all the best knowledge of their era.  They had this world figured out, but they could not find God because they forgot to look right beside themselves, right in front of themselves.  They forgot to check their breath, their blood, their being—between their teeth.  God was right there all along.

I wonder, where do you think you will find God this week?

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