May 27, 2019
William G. Carter
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. 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.
When we were kids, my brother and sisters used to play a game called, “Red Light, Green Light.” Anybody ever play that? My brother was “It.” He stood some distance away with his back turned to the rest of us. He would holler, “Green Light,” and the rest of us moved toward him. Abruptly he called out “Red Light,” and turned around. The rest of us had to stop and freeze. If he detected somebody moving, he would send that person back to the beginning.
The game would continue like this, stop and go, go and stop. Our goal was to be the first one to tag him, so that we could become “It.” That’s how the game went on, with starts and stops, for most of the afternoon.
That game comes to mind when I hear this account from the book of Acts. That book is the account of the church on the move. Beginning in Jerusalem, on to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. According to that map, you and I live “at the end of the earth.” But for all the apparent success and progress of the Gospel that Luke reports, he also notes there were a lot of stops and starts.
Now, you and I know that’s true. Nothing ever travels in a straight line. When the kids get the keys to the car and you ask them to go get some milk, they might make a couple of stops on the way. Once my mother sent me to the supermarket to get some Italian bread for the spaghetti she was cooking up for supper. I returned with the bread…eventually…but I wasn’t hungry for the spaghetti. Maybe it had to do with stopping for a couple of Big Macs on the way.
Every journey has a detour, a turn in the road, an unexpected pothole, to say nothing of starts and stops. These days, I know very few people who retire from the same job that they began forty years before. The former days of putting in your time at one place and staying there for the rest of your career until you get the gold watch and the free trip to the Jersey shore are mostly long gone for most people.
From what they tell me, about 40 percent of college freshman stay with their original major until graduation. Sometimes it is life that interferes. Other times, as it was in my case, you come to your senses and ask, “What was I thinking?” Back in college, when I was bombing out of a calculus-based physics class, I set my books down in a study cubicle of the science library, only to see a quote penciled on the wall. It said, “Never let schooling interfere with your education.” I closed my books and said, “That’s it. Goodbye to pre-med.” Supposedly it was a quote from Mark Twain, but I took it as the Voice of God.
So the apostle Paul thought he had the Gospel all charted out. Ever since he was knocked off his horse on the Road to Damascus, he has been going from one Jewish synagogues to the next to declare, “The Messiah has come, and his name is Jesus.” He had some modest success with this, and a few bumps along the way.
And then something unexpected happened: some people who were not Jewish began to believe in Jesus. This was the first big argument in the church. Jesus was a Jew. His followers were Jews. Paul was a Jew. The strategy was to speak about Jesus to their fellow Jews. And several non-Jews began to believe in Jesus.
It was an enormous problem. The church was convinced Jesus came only for the Jews like them: red light to everybody else. The problem is that God had given a green light where the church expected a red light. Can you believe that God loves more people than we do? That was the first major disturbance in the church.
So while the church tried to make sense of that, Paul decided to hit the road. If God welcomed Gentiles, he would still speak about Jesus to the Jews, but he would speak to the Gentiles too, the non-Jews. He began to make his way across the land that we now call Turkey.
That’s where today’s story gets interesting. They tried to go left, and the Holy Spirit said, “No!” They tried to go right, and the Holy Spirit said, “No!”
What does that mean that the Holy Spirit said, “No”? I’m not sure. Maybe God wrote with a finger in the clouds, “Nope, you can’t go that way.” Or maybe they were praying and studying the scripture, and then had the very clear sense that God had other plans. We can’t say.
I believe if you really think that you know what you’re going to do, and it doesn’t turn out, you basically have two choices. You can ram through anyway, perhaps later admitting you were wrong. Or you can give in, and later declare, “the Holy Spirit said no.”
It’s kind of like when I was a younger lad, and for the first time ever, I fell head over heels in love. That young lady was beautiful. I observed her from a distance, and I wanted to get closer. There was graciousness in her step, and oxygen in her laughter. I was convinced she was the one for me. One day I got up the courage to ask her out for ice cream, and she said yes. A couple days later, I asked if she would like to go for a walk and she agreed. She even took my hand; wow! A week into our romance, I was ready to pop the question.
So I decided to take it to the next level: I asked her to a jazz concert. She said, “I don’t like jazz. I like the music of Cat Stevens.” That was a shock, but I went out and listened to some of her music, thinking I might get into her heart and soul. When I told her, she smiled. So I was bold enough to go and buy two tickets to the jazz concert, because I was sure she wanted to go. No, she said she still didn’t want to go. But I was convinced she was the one. She was so beautiful. I loved being around her.
I fell hard. The night of that concert, I walked beneath her window, pacing back and forth. What should I do? On impulse, I knocked on the door and she opened with a smile. “Are you busy?” I asked. She said, “No.” I said, “Good!” I took her by the hand and said, “Let’s go to the jazz concert.” She went, but by the third song, she was fidgeting. At intermission, she excused herself to the rest room and she didn’t come back.
Since I was twenty years old and full of myself, I didn’t go looking for her. I had spent a lot of money on those tickets. The next day, she left me a message, saying simply, “I don’t think we should see one another anymore.” I was crushed. I mean, it was a really good concert.
When the dust settled, I came to believe the Holy Spirit said “no.” It was very clear, for all kinds of reasons, that sophomore romance had no future.
Ever have a door shut in your face? Ever think you knew the will of God without bothering to listen to God, much less the people around you? That’s what happened to the apostle Paul. Not once, probably more than twice. It was very clear: red light to Asia Minor to the right, red light to Bithynia to the left. So he finds himself in the port city of Troas and doesn’t know what to do.
Tired and frustrated, he goes to sleep. And during the night, while he is sleeping, while he rests from his aggressiveness and his guard is down, he dreams of a man calling out to him, “Come to Macedonia and help us!” That hadn’t been in the plans, but it seemed like an open door, like a green light, like an invitation worth pursuing. So he and his companions hopped on the next ship and that’s how the Gospel landed in Europe, beginning in the country of Macedonia.
Sometimes God says no. Sometimes God says yes. The wise Christian is the one who can tell the difference. The word is discernment. It is a particularly spiritual way of reaching a decision. What’s curious is that discernment is never a forced decision. We don’t decide something and then bulldoze through. Rather, we step back from our own anxiety, we listen to the all sides, we pay attention, we try to perceive what is going on beneath it all.
There is a deeper wisdom from God, a larger will than our own willfulness. Discernment is receiving that wisdom and trusting God will open the way that needs to be opened.
Sometimes God says no. Sometimes God says yes. And sometimes when God says yes, the “yes” comes in a surprising way.
Just imagine rabbi Paul, with his years of Pharisaic training, his love of scripture, his growing love for Christ. He is ready to preach the Gospel whenever and wherever there is an opening. The dream says, “Come to Macedonia,” so he had to be thinking big thoughts when he got to Philippi. It was a “leading city” in the district, and he was there for many days. Surely, he could find a gathering of the faithful in a city like that.
And imagine his surprise when to the river to the place of prayer, and all he finds is a group of women. He’s a rabbi, he’s an old-fashioned Jew. His entire religious training said, “Be cautious about speaking in public with women.” Yet that’s what God opened up to him - the ladies’ prayer group down by the river. Not what he expected, not what he had planned – but the Holy Spirit had said “no” over here, and “no” over there – and now the Spirit was saying “yes” to a new opportunity in a land where he had never dreamed of going.
That is, not until God planted another kind of dream in his head and his heart.
I think this is a great text for Christian people. It’s a continuing reminder that we are not in charge of our own future. We don’t tell God what kind of blessings we expect; rather we receive the blessings that God provides. And if we are tuned in to the ways of the Holy Spirit, we perceive that they really are blessings. Maybe not what we would have planned, but certainly they are gifts to be unwrapped.
It’s a great text for Christian congregations, especially a church like this one that has been around for a while. It’s easy to put it on autopilot when things are going well, and even easier to coast, drift, or go off course. Part of the task for us is to keep listening to our changing circumstances, to keep paying attention to what God might be doing – and to discern what God might be opening up before us for the ministry that we share.
So that makes it a super text for our elders and deacons. We ordain these people and call on them to give us leadership. We are blessed to have people with skills, but we want more than their skills. They are strong and capable, but we want more than their strength and their capability. We want them to listen for the wisdom of God, to perceive the emerging invitation that the Spirit of Christ is laying before us. We look to them to hear the voice of Christ beckoning us forward – and to challenge us to follow the unfolding will of God.
Today, let’s pray for God to keep speaking, for the Holy Spirit to keep planting dreams in our hearts, and for the Risen Christ to open the way forward, both for our lives and our life together. When all is said and done, we are here to love God and to love all of our neighbors. We do this, not because it’s easy, but because it is the way to the fullness of life. We love God and neighbor, not because it’s a good idea, but because it is God’s idea – and it is the invitation that God keeps setting before us.