Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sermon for May 9th: Acts 16:6-15

God is Working His Purpose Out

Why are you here in this church today?

After all, the majority of the people of Edmonton aren’t in churches this morning. And ten years ago, the majority of you certainly weren’t here at St. Margaret’s – I know, because I was here and most of you weren’t! So how has it happened that you are here this morning, a part of this community of faith, come to worship God and learn the way of Jesus with us?

I sometimes ask that question myself! How did I get to be the rector of St. Margaret’s? After all, I was born in an industrial city in the English midlands. How did I end up married to a girl from Ontario, and how did it happen that we’ve spent our entire married lives in the west and the north? And how, after twenty years in rural ministry, did I become the pastor of a suburban parish like St. Margaret’s?

As I was reading our passage from Acts for this morning, I found myself wondering whether Paul asked himself a similar question. What on earth was Paul doing in the city of Philippi? As a young Jewish man he had gone to Jerusalem to be tutored by the famous rabbi Gamaliel, and he had learned a deep devotion to the law of Israel and the traditions of the Pharisees. According to those traditions, the Jews were to stay away from Gentiles, who were not God’s chosen people. But now Paul found himself in a city in the province of Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece – a city that was a Roman colony, a city where there were so few Jews that there wasn’t even a synagogue where they could gather for prayer. I wonder if he asked himself, “What am I doing here?” And we might ask the same question this morning: what on earth was Paul doing in Philippi?

We can begin to answer that question by making a general statement: Paul was in Philippi as a missionary of Jesus Christ, trying to persuade people who were not Christians to turn from their previous religious traditions and put their trust in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord. And immediately, if we are good twenty-first century Canadians, we start to feel uncomfortable with this.

“Paul”, we say, “haven’t you heard that every religion is an equally good and valid way of getting to God? What are you doing messing with the religions of the people of Macedonia? Don’t you know that the God of Israel is just that – the God of Israel? Other people have other ways of understanding God – ways that are equally good and true. You should have stayed in Jerusalem, Paul, and not tried to convert people outside Israel to the way of Jesus. It’s all about tolerance and respect. It’s people like you that get religious wars started, Paul!”

This point of view sounds very good and enlightened; the problem is that it runs completely against the grain of our scriptures, and especially the express commands of Jesus. After all, at the end of Jesus’ ministry he didn’t tell his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and be content with following his teaching there, leaving other nations to their own religious traditions. No, every single gospel writer tells us that Jesus sent his disciples out to announce his good news to people everywhere, and to call on them to turn to him as their Lord and Saviour. For example, in Luke’s gospel Jesus says that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:47), and in Acts he tells his disciples, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

Paul had become one of those witnesses. On the road to Damascus he had had a supernatural encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus; he had heard God speak to him with the voice of Jesus, and God had called him to become a missionary for the gospel of Christ. And he had been faithful to that call, travelling all over the Mediterranean world announcing the good news and challenging people to turn from their previous allegiances and become followers of Jesus.

So biblical faith is missionary to the core; it always has been. And if you think about it, that’s part of the answer to the question, ‘Why are you here this morning?’ After all, whether we came to faith in Christ gradually, as a result of our parents’ witness, or had a conversion experience that brought us out of darkness into the light of Christ, the only reason we have been able to respond to the Christian message is because missionaries brought it into our earshot. We would not be followers of Jesus today if it had not been for the work of those missionaries. And we in our turn are called to pass it on to others, just as Paul was doing.

So Paul was in Philippi as a missionary, to share the gospel and challenge people to turn to Christ. But we can go on to make a further statement: Paul was in Philippi because God had clearly and explicitly directed him to come there, even though it wasn’t in Paul’s original plan.

Paul had originally planned this trip to revisit churches he’d already planted in what is now southern Turkey, and then to move on into new areas. He seems to have had a pretty clear idea in his mind of the route he wanted to take. But look at what happened in Acts 16:6-8:

‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been expressly 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’.

Troas was on the extreme north-western coast of Turkey. Now look what happens next in verses 9-10:

‘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 we had seen this vision, we immediately tried to cross over into Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them’.

This was a huge step. They were crossing from Asia into what is now Europe; they were crossing from a region where there were a lot of Jewish synagogues to an area where Jewish people were much fewer and further between. And their first stop when they got into Macedonia, the city of Philippi, was not just any ordinary city; it was a Roman colony – that is to say, it had been founded as place where retired Roman soldiers could settle. The people there would be proud of their Roman heritage and customs, and one would think they would be less likely to be interested in the story of a Galilean carpenter who had been executed by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, as a potential rebel against the Roman emperor.

If I was Paul I might be tempted to say, “God, this doesn’t make sense. We had a perfectly good plan to move into new areas where we had every reason to believe that people would be receptive to the gospel. Instead, you’re guiding us to a place where it seems very unlikely that people will be interested in Jesus. Are you sure this is a good idea?” But Paul didn’t say that; instead, he responded immediately to God’s guidance. You see, Paul knew from long experience that God knew what he was doing. And I’m sure that Paul had discovered what many generations of Christians after him have also discovered: the evangelism you don’t plan often works better than the evangelism you do plan, especially when it’s guided by the Holy Spirit!

A couple of years ago our Diocese of Edmonton began putting a lot of emphasis on congregations having ‘Mission Action Plans’. We were encouraged to look at the needs of our neighbourhoods and plan ways that we could reach out and serve our communities in the name of Jesus, and also share the gospel with them. So here at St. Margaret’s we had a number of meetings and conversations with different groups and people in our parish, and then we took what we heard and distilled it into a Mission Action Plan; if I remember correctly there were about seven or eight different initiatives that we set out in that plan.

But you know what happened? About two thirds of what we had planned didn’t work. We tried to get people to come to coffee mornings to share their faith stories and no one showed up. We tried to organise a Vacation Bible School and couldn’t get volunteers. On the surface, it looked quite discouraging. But something else was happening; a lot of new people were coming to our congregation, and a lot of them were bringing babies with them. I got the sense that our parish was starting to grow. And at the end of the year, when we added up the numbers, our average Sunday attendance had gone up from 72 in 2008 to 83 in 2009!

I’m convinced that this is the way God works. You know the old saying: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!’ Of course, we have to plan, but the chances are that the future is going to turn out very differently from what we had in the plan – and that’s nothing to be afraid of.

So Paul hadn’t planned to be in Philippi, but God had brought him there. Fifteen years ago I definitely wasn’t planning on moving to a city, but God brought me here too. And a few years ago some of you probably weren’t even planning on being followers of Jesus, let alone being members of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church! But God was at work guiding our steps, and here we all are today!

So we’ve seen that Paul was in Philippi as a missionary of Jesus Christ, and that he was there because God had clearly guided him there. But there’s a third thing we can say, too: Paul was in Philippi because of Lydia. Look at verses 13-15:

‘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 worshipper 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 faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”. And she prevailed upon us’.

Luke tells us that Lydia was ‘a worshipper of God’, which probably means she was one of the people at that time who had gotten tired of the many gods of the Greek and Roman world and had begun to worship and obey the God of Israel. These folks were always fertile ground for Christian evangelistic activity, and Lydia was no exception.

But note how Luke phrases this: ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’ (14b). This seems a little strange to us. We tend to stress the human side of things – the fact that I chose to be a follower of Jesus - but there’s another way of looking at it, a way that stresses divine initiative: I am a Christian because of the work of God.

We’re treading on holy ground here, on the mysterious intersection between God’s work and our response. To us, it seems as if we’re dealing with two opposite ideas that can’t both be true. If we human beings have free will to accept or reject God’s invitation to follow Jesus, then God can’t be in control of the process. On the other hand, if God is the one who opens our hearts to hear the gospel and respond, then we can’t have genuine free will, can we?

We need to be careful about using human logic when we’re dealing with God. After all, God being the almighty creator of the universe, and me being a tiny human being on a tiny planet in one of the thousands of galaxies he has created, it’s not surprising that there are some things in the mind of God that I can’t understand! And in this instance, the truth is not at one extreme, or at the other extreme, or in the middle, but at both ends. Yes, Paul went to Philippi to preach the gospel, and through his preaching God was inviting his hearers to use their free will to choose to become followers of Jesus. Yes, God opened the heart of Lydia so that she could hear and respond to the gospel. Both of those statements are true. God had prepared Lydia to receive the gospel, and God had brought Paul to Philippi so that she could hear and respond to the gospel. God was working his purpose out, as he always does.

Which brings us back to the question we started with, ‘Why are you here at St. Margaret’s this morning?’ We might say that we’re here because of the missionary work of people long ago, or because our parents shared the gospel with us; we might say that we’re here because our last church wasn’t too inspiring; we might even say that we’re here because we got out of bed on the right side this morning and the kids didn’t give us too much trouble as we were getting ready!

None of this would be wrong, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of the truth is this: you are here this morning because God has brought you here. Behind the human chain of events that led you here this morning is the unseen hand of God at work. You are here for a reason. And I wonder what truth God is opening your heart to pay attention to this morning?

And let’s take this one step further. You are not only ‘Lydia’ in this process; you are also ‘Paul’. God doesn’t only want you to hear and respond to the gospel; he wants you to share it with others too. Even now, in your life, God is at work bringing you into contact with people who he has prepared to respond to the Christian message. Who is the person God wants you to invite to church? Who is the person God wants you to begin a spiritual conversation with? Keep your eyes and ears open; listen to people, and listen to God. God is the one who is at work here, but he has chosen to ask us to co-operate with him in this work. So let’s pray for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, so that God can indeed work through us, drawing other people to himself.

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