Acts 16: 9-15
May 5, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
We've been traveling with Peter and Paul these last few weeks and experiencing with them the power of the Holy Spirit, the comforter and presence of God that came to the church on Pentecost, which we celebrate in just two more weeks. I mention this because for most modern churches, Pentecost, coming at the end of the Easter season and the start of summer, marks for us more of an ending than a beginning.
After Pentecost, we say, we won’t be so busy. After Pentecost comes Memorial Day weekend, and vacations, and VBS. No more Sunday Christian Education classes, after Pentecost. So the day that represents the first stirrings of the Holy Spirit, the great and glorious celebration of the beginning of the faith, the very birthday of the church, has become for us a sign that it is time to relax!
Those first disciples were always getting signs, always seeing visions that told them where to go, and what they were to do.
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.
The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying,
“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”
And she prevailed upon us.
Pop quiz – what popular artist recorded a song whose title is part of the sermon title?
Hint, it was not Alvin and the Chipmunks. That’s right, Willie Nelson.
That song, “On the Road Again,” is the quintessential traveling musician song. It’s also a great description of many of the stories in the book of Acts. Three weeks ago, we caught Saul as his entire life took a detour, when he was knocked off his …donkey… and brought into a life of faith in Christ. The last couple of weeks, we’ve been following Peter as he took a detour from his planned itinerary to drop in and visit Dorcas, and raise her from the dead. Then Peter had to go over and visit Cornelius, the gentile who came to know Jesus through a vision and through Peter’s witness.
Now we are back with Saul, who is Paul, the Apostle. And he is about to get on the road again. We've moved into the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, so we are past the Jerusalem Council that I mentioned last week. That was the first big confab of this new group called “Christians,” and it is where they decided that Gentiles didn't need to become Jews in order to come to faith in Jesus Christ. I mentioned last week that the Jerusalem Council was the first such meeting but by no means the last.
But now, in chapter 16, we’re past that dispute, everything has been sorted out, and the elders have given out the list of what can and can’t be allowed. Paul has begun his missionary journeys in earnest, following the Roman roads and spreading the gospel out to the empire. His plan was to go East.
In the verses prior to those you heard in the scripture reading, it says:
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”
Now, twice, Paul (and whoever is with him) has been detoured from his intended route.
They have been given a sign, a very clear sign, in a vision from God. They are to go to Macedonia. So they do, to the leading city of that region, Philippi.
If you are like me, and you sometimes skip ahead to the end of a book to find out how it ends, and you want to know more about Philippi, look up Philippians in your Bible, and you’ll see the results of this visit. But for now, Paul and his companion or companions
are making their first visit to this town.
Philippi has a fascinating history. The city was founded by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, around 350 BC, and was the site of a strategic garrison. It provided access to gold mines and was the site of a royal mint. For a brief period, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, Macedonia became the most powerful state in the world, controlling a territory that included the former Persian empire, stretching as far as the Indus River; at that time it inaugurated the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greek civilization.
Philippi later had some fame as the site of a battle in the Roman civil war, the war that erupted after the assassination of Julius Caesar. There, Mark Antony and Octavian confronted Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius – remember, “Et tu, Brute?”? Antony and Octavian were victorious in the Battle of Philippi. After that victory, they released some of their veteran soldiers and colonized them in the city. One source says that it was a popular retirement spot for Roman military.
So Paul comes to this “leading city” in Macedonia. It is his custom to go find the Jewish community, so he goes down to the river side on the Sabbath. He comes upon a group of women, gathered in prayer, and he sits down, in the pose of a teacher, and talks with them.
One of the women the Apostle Paul meets is a leading citizen of Philippi, a wealthy business woman named Lydia apparently a single woman. She listens eagerly to what Paul has to say, and the Lord opens her heart to the gospel. And so, not only does Lydia welcome the gospel message, but she and her household are baptized, and she welcomes Paul into her home. This gives Paul a base of operations for his further work in Philippi, which we’ll see more of next week, when the journey detours into a jail term for the Apostle.
These stories from Acts, while they may seem distant from us and from our own stories, are filled with parallels to our own lives. I read somewhere recently that a Gallup poll of Christians, years ago, asked if any of them had seen visions, and many answered that they had. But few people bring this up in conversation.
It’s that awkward moment, when you mention casually,
“So, Jesus spoke to me last night in a dream, and told me to go to Keokuk.”
People just don’t know what to say…
We certainly aren’t looking for such events to change our lives. Or maybe we do, in fact, have such signs and visions ourselves, but we are unable to interpret them, or understand them. In my email every day, I get a little picture and story from Story People, a company in Decorah, Iowa, that makes signs and cards and posters. The other day, my Story People email said this:
I used to wait for a sign, she said, before I did anything.
Then one night I had a dream, and an angel in black tights came to me and said,
“You can start any time now.”
And then I said, “Is this a sign?” and the angel started laughing and I woke up.
Now, I think the whole world is filled with signs, but if there’s no laughter,
I know they’re not for me.”
I wonder sometimes if we have become blind and tone-deaf to the signs around us. Certainly, most of the time we don’t see visions of people saying, “Come over here and help us.” But we seem to be waiting for some stunning moment, an angel, or sky-writing, or Jesus coming to us in a blinding light. I think we sometimes expect a flash of lightning to direct us, instead of just going down to the river to pray.
For us, that place may not be the river side. It may be the church, or the coffee shop, or the band concert, or club meeting, or the board meeting, or the dinner party – wherever the people are gathered. And the sign may be that someone asks us something – about our faith, our church, our beliefs, our position on an issue. The vision may be of a person in need – a child who needs lunch, or a lonely senior citizen, or a group that needs a safe place to meet, or a youth who needs a caring friend, or someone who doesn’t know how to ask for our help.
We may feel called, or invited, or even compelled to take a detour, to engage in a new kind of conversation, to explore a heartfelt question, to go out of our way, or in a different direction, because we sense God has asked us to do so. And how do we know that it is indeed a sign or a calling from God? How do we distinguish a genuine opportunity to detour for ministry from a twinge of guilt or a bit of undigested pork or a fever of religious fanaticism?
Judging from the stories we have read so far in Acts, there are some pretty clear indicators:
If we take these stories as a guide, we can conclude that in a real God-detour, the information we get is reasonable – there’s no sense in which the detour is crazy. The route is fairly clear, and if there are obstacles, we can see how to overcome them, or we have the community of faith with us to help us overcome. When we take the path of one of God’s detours, the way becomes clear. There is a Quaker saying that when God wants something to happen, “way will open.” There is a Zen saying that says, “Move, and the way will open.” Or, like my Story People story, we just hear the words, “You can start any time now.”
Sometimes we can’t see where the detour will take us, but in this story, when Paul speaks with the women, the Bible tells us “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly.” Now, just in case you are getting nervous because you are afraid I am going to talk about the E-word – evangelism, and you are worried that I’m going to tell you to share your faith, take a deep breath, don’t worry. Nobody is asking you to go out and knock on doors and thump on a Bible and push your beliefs on other people. What you are responsible for – what we are all invited to do is to be open to the Holy Spirit, to let her work in our lives, and watch for her movement, whether it is like a gentle breeze or a roaring wind.
To do that, we need to pay attention, to be awake, and to be open to the signs and visions that God may have for us, to be ready to take a detour. And we need to remember that when that happens, and we respond, the result is not fear or anger or unhappiness – the result is eager listening, gladness, hospitality, a welcome.
So the detour is not a scary winding road to nowhere, but a path that takes us to a place of great joy. Most of us are more comfortable taking the beaten path, following the strategic plan, drawing up the future and staying on the main road. But there can be discovery, and joy, and happiness, on the road, with a detour, if we can be open to the vision.
One of the clear signs we are given is at this table, in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. When we come to this table, we receive a clear sign of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, grace and hospitality for ALL people. We are welcomed into a vision of God’s kingdom at a table where all people are loved and welcomed to come in, sit down, be fed and nourished. We do not need to sign our names to a list of doctrines, or subscribe to a statement of belief, or prove that we are worthy. We only need to come with hearts open to the good news, hands open to receive the bread of life, eyes open to see the cup that is offered freely and with love. The sacrament of communion is a sign, a sign of God’s extravagant love.
When you detour away from the world, from your own plans, away from self and toward this table, you come into Christ’s presence. It is a detour that takes you on the road that leads to a life of meaning. And if you listen carefully, you might hear the sound of joyful laughter, and the voice of an angel saying, “You can start any time now.”