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Sermon for March 24, 2019

Texts: Psalm 20/Acts 16:1-15

Title: “When God Says, ‘Go’”

      I doubt that there is a person among us who in your travels have not been forced to accommodate some unforeseen event that forced a change of plans; a canceled flight, an illness, or a reservation that got lost.

The apostle Paul might sympathize with your plight.  Macedonia wasn’t on Paul’s itinerary.  He and his companion Timothy were making a swing through Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, a day here, a week there, their mission to check in with the faith communities that had been seeded in that part of the world. They were pleased with everything they witnessed. Scripture tells us that the churches they visited were strong and gaining in numbers.

      The two missionaries were well pleased with what they what they had seen thus far, and were making their way to the next stop on their itinerary when they were interrupted. A spirit, which our lesson identifies as the spirit of Jesus, stopped them in their tracks. It seems that Paul had a vision of a man pleading with him to make the journey of approximately 130 miles across the Adriatic to Macedonia.  The vision was convincing enough that Paul felt compelled to change his itinerary, no small thing for Paul was traveling on the authority and by the instruction of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem.

      This, of course, was not the first time God would take charge of Paul’s itinerary. Most of us know the story of how his life was dramatically changed from a rabid persecutor of Christians to a devout convert to Christ while traveling on the road to Damascus. He arrived in Damascus, but instead of rounding up Christians for persecution per instruction of his Jewish bosses, the city of Damascus became the launch point for a whole new life as an ambassador for Christ.  Thereafter Paul pretty much left his itinerary in God’s hands. 

      Think of a time when you have seem your itinerary taken out of your hands. I spoke earlier of travel plans that went array. But how about other itineraries that were short circuited. We might have had certain plans for our life related to career, marriage, children, all the important things, and just like that, some event or experience took us off in a direction we would never have anticipated.    

      How are we to explain such things? Is there an explanation you favor? Does any attempt at explaining that we mortals can come up with really satisfy? Better to expect the unexpected than to wring our hands when our journey, for whatever reason, takes an unexpected turn.

      Paul had learned to expect the unexpected. If God didn’t want him to follow the itinerary the saints in Jerusalem had laid out, fine and good.  Macedonia it would be.  Arriving by ship on the western shore of the Adriatic, Paul stepped onto the European continent for the first time, and it was to Philippi, a Macedonian city just a few miles away, that Paul and Timothy would carry the word of God.

      The book of Acts states that Paul and Timothy remained in Philippi for an extended period of time.  His motivations for remaining in Philippi are undisclosed, however, one scholar makes a general point when he cites the pressure under which Paul operated. He writes that Paul was caught between two opposing currents, “one driving him onward and another holding him back.”  On the one hand Paul felt compelled to take the gospel of the Lord to as many places as possible, while on the other hand he felt responsible to stay with a particular community of believers for a more extended time in order to shepherd their spiritual growth. Paul was a pastor but also an evangelist, each of those two roles placing demands on his talents, and his conscience.  

      In today’s lesson Paul and Timothy were operating in evangelist mode, and their ministry was having impact. The book of Acts cites conversions to Jesus’ gospel reaching hundreds, if not thousands. Converts, according to Acts, were being added at every hamlet and city on the road. Hyperbole, perhaps, but scripture gives us ample evidence to believe that Paul and his colleagues were doing great work in Christ’s name.

      Paul, Timothy and others touched many lives, the names of those persons, for the most part, lost to history.  That is not the case in our lesson today.

      Acts tells us that Paul and Timothy had been in Philippi for “some days.”  “Some days,” could mean a week or two or even a month.  We do not know how long the two had been there when on a Sabbath day, seeking a place to pray, they met up with Lydia and some other women near a river.  Acts describes Lydia as a “worshiper of God,” which likely means that she was a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel.

        A forceful, passionate speaker, the impact of Paul’s words, we are told, opened Lydia’s heart. Mind you, the heart was not merely part of the human anatomy in the mind of the ancients.  The heart was “the seat of the will, the source of thought, and reasoning.”

      God used Paul to open a pathway into Lydia’s very being.  Subsequently baptized, the woman invited Paul and Timothy to stay in her home.

      “[God] opened her heart to listen.”  To that statement Paul would have raised no objection, for Paul knew the source of power from which he drew. He knew that when he responded to Christ’s call to ministry on the Damascus road he was placing his whole life under God’s authority. Furthermore, he knew that he would never be alone.  He knew that wherever he went God could be counted upon to be.  He believed that despite the fact that the reception he received in various places was anything but friendly.

      Paul’s life was marked by a series of confrontations, beatings, arrests, and imprisonments. When God said, “go,” Paul did not seek the safe or comfortable option.  Paul went, and when he went he continued to meet up with people like Lydia, people whose hearts had been opened to hear, people who wanted to learn more about the Christ he served, people who were eager to offer him hospitality in their homes.

      Paul knew that wherever he went God could be counted upon to be.  He was able to maintain that conviction in the face of real hardship because he had witnessed God transform lives, and to witness lives transformed gave him greater and greater confidence in his ability as an agent of transformation.

It is important to remember, however that Paul needed the Lydia’s of the world just as much as they needed him. There are no “lone rangers” when it comes to our life under God. From the very outset Christians created communities of mutual support to see to the practical needs and spiritual sustenance of those within the community.

      In his letter to the church at Rome he alludes to that mutual reinforcement, writing, “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Not ignoring the practical necessities facing members of the community, the book of Acts tells us that a diaconate was created to see that everyone, particularly the widow and orphan, were cared for. While Paul and a cadre of spiritual leaders maintained the spiritual unity of the community, the deacons performed a similar function in practical matters, thereby establishing a paradigm for ministry that exists to this very day.

      As we have already discovered, however, Paul was an itinerant whose ministry followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit. So, Paul and Timothy traveled to Philippi in Macedonia, and what did they find? They found that God had been there.  They found that God had opened the heart of Lydia and that she was ready to receive encouragement from Paul, encouragement that would lead, not just to her baptism, but the baptism of all the members of her household, encouragement that would be reinforced as she opened her home to Paul.

      Remember, the visit to Macedonia, and that church at Philippi, were not on Paul and Timothy’s itinerary.  It happened, however, that God set a different itinerary. God opened the heart of a woman in Philippi that needed encouraging.

      God took charge of Paul’s itinerary in a very overt way that may or may not be replicated in our lives. The fact remains that God has an itinerary for each of us. No, life isn’t random in God’s eyes. God holds in his heart a vision for each of our lives. That vision may not be articulated in bold strokes after the example of the Apostle Paul, but we can be assured that God is invested in each one of us as much as he was in the apostle. How do we know that, we know that because that is the abiding theme of Holy Scripture. This whole world is bound together in a love that embraces everyone not in rank order of supposed worthiness, but on one level plane.

The breadth of that love is demonstrated in the way God used Paul. Note that Paul was appointed pastor not merely to those who shared his Jewish identity he was sent to gentiles like Lydia. He was a road warrior, logging the kind of miles typical of today’s frequent flyer.

Lydia may not have known that she needed being taken care of, but God said, “go, take care of Lydia, she’s one of mine too.” Oh yes, Paul was a trailblazer in ministry, but only in a sense. Paul was walking in the footsteps of one who went before him. It was Jesus upon whom Paul’s life and outreach were modeled. The sun never set on the lands to which Jesus’ love and care extended, and the same applied to Paul.  

      Macedonia was on the horizon. Lydia was there, and God was there, but Paul didn’t know the details.  All he knew was that Macedonia was on the horizon, and that is where he needed to be.

Macedonia was a foreign place with unfamiliar customs.  Paul could not expect the people of Macedonia to think like him. They were people of a different ethnicity, a people who observed different customs. Paul was a foreigner to the Macedonians.

It took faith bolstered by courage for Paul to follow the prompting of the Spirit. But then when was the will of God ever carried out by human actors absent those two elements of faith and courage?

God sets the itinerary, but he also equips us with the faith and courage to follow it. There is personal itinerary, but there is also an itinerary to which the Spirit directs us as a faith community.  

God had an itinerary for Lydia’s life, and Paul’s visit to her city was very much a part of that itinerary. We will never know how her life might have preceded without Paul, but Paul’s intervention delivered her to the place that God wanted her to be.

Through Paul’s agency Lydia became just one of the rapidly growing number of converts who by their commitment to Jesus Christ were changing the whole character of the ancient world. Again, God has a love affair with the world, and the church which Paul and Timothy represented was the embodied expression of that love affair.

We are not given to know precisely how God uses the Church in his ultimate plan for the redemption of the world. What we do know is, that called into existence by Jesus Christ, who is its head, the Church was founded to be the vessel through which his gospel is delivered to the world.

And we, friends, are that vessel, we are the church. Our individual itineraries have been, by God’s providence, incorporated into the itinerary God, in Christ, has set for the Church.

We are the Church. Our worship, our sacraments, our history, traditions, and music are in large part foreign to many of the people with whom you and I daily interact. That said, God has directed our itinerary into the world.

The unchurched world is the Macedonia into which the spirit is calling us. Yet our personal preferences seldom align with that calling.  But just as God had equipped Paul for ministry, so God equips us. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul summarizes the church’s calling as he understood it, writing, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God his making his appeal through us.” That ambassadorial vocation has passed generation to generation to us. 

God put Macedonia on Paul’s itinerary, and what did he find?  He found that God was waiting for him in Macedonia.  Lydia was waiting in Macedonia, her heart open to the message he brought, and as he shared the message to a woman who had never heard it, he discovered in the sharing that his own faith had taken deeper more permanent roots. And isn’t that what we want as well?

Paul’s faith was strengthened in engagement with the people among whom he moved. It is by the practice of ministry that he became minister, and the same holds for us. Our identity as ambassadors for Christ is confirmed in action.

Why go to Macedonia?  Paul went to Macedonia for Lydia’s sake, and for the sake of all the Lydia’s of that land.  But in going there he found his own faith challenged and deepened.

 God pledges to strength us when we take seriously his call to support and strengthen others. Yet the temptation for Christian churches and fellowships has always been to make the nest at home comfortable as priority number one, and to forget about Lydia over there in Macedonia. That might be likened to the mailperson who puts the mail in her sack, and never gets around to delivering it. To stretch the metaphor a bit more, we might think of ourselves as mail carriers for Christ.

Paul was an ambassador for Christ, appointed to take the gospel to where it had never been before. One of those places was Macedonia. A place Paul had never been before. He faced plenty challenges, but he could call on a power not is own.

We are the Church in 2019. We face challenges in fulfilling our mission as a church unique to our times and circumstances. What itinerary God has set for us we do not know. Yet we do know that wherever go God is there, and we have gifts to bring there as people who bear the name of Christ and daily strive to be worthy of his name. We are the Church, faithfully preparing as ambassadors within, that we carry the gospel out.

The Greek mathematician Euclid was employed as a tutor to a great king.  The king complained that the theorems Euclid was teaching were to difficult to grasp, wondering if there was an easier way to approach the subject.  Euclid replied, “Sire, there is no royal road to geometry.

There is no easy road to ambassadorhood, but there is a road.  Through the Spirit of God working in us we are daily being prepared to travel it. To God’s name be praise. AMEN

 

      PRAYER

       Living God, source of life, even as we live life we seek life.  We seek that which a dollar can’t purchase, a good reputation, or length of days on earth secure. We seek meaning and purpose in life, and by your grace, O God, you have disclosed where those things are to be found. In Christ, your only son, you revealed the true treasures of life, treasures to be discovered not in bank vaults or trophy cases, but instead in a servant’s vocation.

     

      O God, we pray for the church.  Charged to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we celebrate the many ways the Good News is being imparted.  We thank you for devoted pastors and lay leaders who daily strive to find new ways and means to present the gospel to the world.  We thank you for church musicians who employ their special talents in your honor.  We lift up and praise you, O God, for the women and men who weekly prepare lessons that help us reach deeper in your word. We praise you for the women and men who recognize their calling in the ministry of hospitality, those persons who greet visitors and prepare refreshments for fellowship. We praise you for those who see their ministry in managing the finances of the church. We thanks for the gifts for ministry we have been given here at Fisherman’s  

      We pray for those who live in harms way today, our military personnel who are posted in dangerous places around the world, but also the citizens of those lands who bear the brunt of the suffering.  In your mercy, O God, support those who are striving for peace and reconciliation between nations.  May the seeds they seek to plant, take root and grow.

       We acknowledge the special needs represented in the congregation today.  O Christ, who gave your life that we may have life, may your healing power go out to the grieving, the ill, the heartbroken, the anxious and the depressed.       O Lord, our rock, upon whose strength we rely, we continue to praise you for the grace you dispense in the friendships we have been privileged to nurture with our friends in this fellowship. And, strengthen us in faith, O God, to be for the world the congregation you would have us to be. Our Father….