A sermon based on verses from Proverbs and Acts 16:1-5 preached on May 1st, 2016
Everyone had their bags packed, their passports in hand, and their itinerary all laid out. They knew exactly how long it would take to get to where they wanted to go.
Paul’s routes spread like roots and branches all around the Mediterranean Sea. He and his travel companions would make their way up North and a bit to the West. The plan was to make their way up through Syria and then head West when they get into Cilicia, which is on the North-East coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and then head Northwest to the Western tip of Asia to a place called Bithynia in what is now modern day Turkey. But as we know, even our best travel plans blow up in our faces. Something held Paul and his travel companions from going East into Bithynia. We’re not sure what, and maybe they didn’t either, but it was so strong that the only thing it could have been was the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus disrupted all their carefully laid-out plans. Perhaps they didn’t know what to call it at the time, maybe it took a long while to figure out what or who was nudging them in the very opposite direction then they planned on going, but whatever it was they sensed, it was strong enough to make them ditch their maps and venture out into unknown territory.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever had to throw out your plans, crumpled up your maps and tossed them over your shoulder into the back seat, and let the wind take you wherever it blew? Even our best-made plans need to be scrapped once in a while.
I recall a time where I was re-routed. Before my 2nd trip to Honduras with my church, I felt like a veteran. I had done this before, so I thought I knew what to expect. So, a few weeks before the second go-around, I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to learn and encounter while I was there. I can’t recall a thing on that list now, but it was like a spiritual itinerary that I mapped out for myself. I promised myself that I was going to get to know God better in some very specific ways, and it became important to me that I stick to my script all the way through this trip.
Well, the trip didn’t quite go the way I had pictured it. Nothing at all bad happened. In fact, something good happened. I made friends with our host and travel companion, Gladys, who was a native of Honduras. She spoke English, and she and I got along famously, and I enjoyed her company and guidance throughout the trip. She even helped me hone my terribly insufficient grasp of the Spanish language. About halfway through the trip, it dawned on me that this unforeseen friendship that we struck up had completely thrown me off of my carefully laid out plans for the trip. Guys have a tendency to be distracted by these sorts of things, but now it was time to focus on what God wanted for me on this trip. I expressed this frustration of mine to my pastor one afternoon, and he said
What if making friends with Gladys is part of God’s plans for you?
That can’t be!
I thought more about that idea for the rest of the afternoon until I decided he might be right. Who was I to say my own tiny plans were God’s plans, too? Wasn’t the thought that I knew the way this trip was all going to go and what and who I was going to encounter along the way—wasn’t that just some super-inflated notion that I knew the future that God had for me? Who was I to think that way? See, we have small plans. God has big plans—ones we cannot know or anticipate, prepare ourselves for, or even imagine. Whatever great things we have in mind, what God has in mind in even greater!
I threw away my list that afternoon, and immediately felt a freedom to explore all the new things placed in front of me. Suddenly, I could see everything that trip had for me. It was like taking a blindfold off and inviting in whatever I lay my eyes upon. God’s world and all that’s in it is so much more wondrous and strange and captivating than anything we could ever dream up ourselves. So, maybe the most faithful thing we could ever do is ditch the itinerary and all our carefully-made plans, and let ourselves be re-routed by the Spirit of Jesus!
I wonder what that means for us as a church. Most of the time when a church wants to dream of its own future, or discern what God is doing, we first form a committee. We name it something like “The Vision-Casting Committee,” then we give it an acronym: “VCC,” and we get to work. And what usually happens is this VCC creates for itself some sort of structure to manage itself with. They do everything in logical steps, and they come up with a “strategic plan.” How inspiring does the phrase “strategic plan” sound to you? The word inspirational comes from the same word that Spirit and breathing in comes from.
We’re just a few weeks from Pentecost, when the first Christians would breathe in the Holy Spirit and become changed people—re-routed and uprooted themselves. Sent out into the world to do God’s work and use their own breath to give breath and voice to the peoples of all nations in the name of Jesus. And before the Holy Sprit, the breath of God, came upon them, they had no notion of where it would take them. We can plan ourselves to kingdom come, but we might find out at some point that the only voice we’re really listen for is our own. And if we do that, we’ll start walking East when the Spirit of Jesus wants us to go West.
After a few days of walking through the city of Philippi, Paul and his fellow travelers walk away from the noise in the center of the town, outside the gates, and toward the river. The busyness of the last few days in the city had them wanting something quieter. They walked out toward the river, thinking they might find a place of prayer—some community of people who listened more then they talked, some community who knew that the best way to discern what God was doing in and amongst them was to gather themselves together in prayer and listen for God to speak to them. Prayer is where we discern God’s next move for us. It’s a way of opening ourselves up to hear the inner promptings and feel the nudges of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the greatest way for us to be receptive.
Paul and his fellow sojourners had been re-routed to this place by the Spirit of Jesus, but they hadn’t yet figured out why, and it’s telling that their search for a place to pray, and their desire to enter into prayer, led them to the very person God wanted them to meet. Paul had a vision that a man from Macedonia urged them to come and help them. Trusting that vision, he and his fellow travelers walked in that direction, open to anything God had to show them.
It turns out that this “man from Macedonia” was actually a woman whose name was Lydia. Lydia was a Gentile, a citizen of Rome. Like most others in Philippi, she was polytheistic. She worshipped many gods, one of whom was the God of Hebrew scripture. She was a wealthy woman. She had it all, really. She was an independent business woman, a dealer in purple cloth, which was reserved for royalty. She had all she ever needed, but something inside of her craved something more. Something deeper than all that.
Long before Paul and his companions show up, Lydia is being nudged in God’s direction. Uprooted from her comfortable life. God had been working in her heart—doing something new. She just couldn’t figure it out. Our story says that she listened as Paul shared the message of Jesus with her and others from her household. As as he spoke, Lydia recognized that this was what God was drawing her towards all this time. God prepares us ahead of time for these encounters. We might not ever recognize it, but God’s plans for us are bigger and more wonderful than we could ever imagine for ourselves.
I found that out in Honduras, Paul and his fellow travelers found that out as they gathered together for prayer, and Lydia found that out as Paul’s words cracked open her heart so that the Spirit of Jesus could come flooding in! I imagine that it was at that moment that Paul and his fellow companions recognized what all this journeying in the other direction was for. They had been re-routed for Lydia.
The experts look at this passage of scripture and wonder who the “we” is at the beginning of verse 11 and all the way through to verse 15. Up until that point, the tale is told in the third person. Then all the sudden it shifts, and the author of Acts supposedly becomes a part of the journey. We sailed. We went to Philippi. We stayed for several days. We sat down with a woman named Lydia. Almost like the author is inviting all of us into the story—along for the journey, as they wind their way through the city and closer to Lydia. As if all of us are being led—or at least have the capacity to be led—by the Spirit of Jesus wherever and whenever we find ourselves. Maybe as the church in the 21st Century, we too are a part of this journey. Maybe we too are being re-routed away from all our own carefully made plans and travel itineraries, to ditch all of it and instead become receptive to the ways that God is calling us in new directions.
Our plans are not God’s plans. When we have our eyes fixed to the East, toward Bithynia, maybe God wants us to go West towards Macedonia instead. But how would we ever know if we don’t take time to listen to any other voice than our own?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!