A sermon by Dr. David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
May 5, 2013
Psalm 67; Acts 16:6-15
How open are you? How open are you, really?
How open are you to new or different ideas? Of course it’s fine, even admirable to hold strong convictions. We all know if you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything. But are you open to the possibility that any of your most cherished, preconceived notions could be mistaken?
How open are you to a change of plans or direction? What I notice about myself is the older I get, the more difficult I find it to change course. I like knowing where I’m going and how I’m getting there. Call it a need for clarity and control. Call it whatever you want. Just don’t ask me to alter my plan…at least not at a moment’s notice.
I suspect that what is true of me is also true of you, and that none of us is as open as we think we are. In fact, our default mode is to have closed minds and hearts until or unless we are forced to do otherwise. Which is why today’s sermon is a challenge to
everyone of us, the preacher included.
Because unless I’m mistaken, God is calling us through our scripture today to maintain a steady state of prayerful openness so we might discern and do the will of God. As followers of Jesus, we are entitled to our plans, opinions, and our preferences. But we are not entitled to be closed-minded about any of it, because what God desires from us is openness to the fresh and often unpredictable guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Now to make any sense of today’s scripture, you’ve got to believe that we are not left to our own devices when it comes to determining our course of action. Centuries before Jesus the Psalmist is clear that God can and will make his way known upon the earth.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
For you (O God) judge the peoples with equity
And guide the nations upon the earth (Psalm 67:4).
In the New Testament, this sense of guidance from above becomes even more pronounced after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not only alive and well. He is present through the Holy Spirit, guiding us and empowering us to do the will of his Father.
How open are you to the idea that that same Spirit of Jesus is available to guide individuals and communities in the 21st century? How open are you, really?
Thanks to the missionary journal maintained by Luke in Acts 16, we are able to see this kind of openness at work in the lives of two very accomplished, strong-willed people who are anything but pushovers. The Apostle Paul is a hugely talented man who is driven to establish Christian churches, and has a carefully drafted strategic plan to help him do it. Lydia is a wealthy, self-made business woman who made quite a name for herself despite living in a man’s world.
And yet…despite their strong temperaments and convictions, Paul and Lydia are willing to set their agendas aside to make room for God and his agenda. And the results of their openness are evident to this day.
Paul is certainly a man with a plan. According to Acts 15, Paul leaves Jerusalem for the purpose of visiting the new churches he has planted in recent months. Paul is thinking these fragile new churches may need encouragement and reinforcement, a perfectly reasonable assumption.
But God seems to have another plan in mind. Every time Paul and his entourage of Silas, Timothy, and Luke attempt to move in the direction of the new churches in Asia,
they are rebuffed by the Holy Spirit, aka the “Spirit of Jesus”.
Luke never bothers to explain exactly how the Spirit prevents them from going to Asia and Bithynia. Do Paul and company have the freedom to disregard the Spirit, stick with Plan A, and visit the existing churches? Of course. But they don’t overrun the Spirit, even though they have to be deeply frustrated that they had just devoted precious time and resources, traveling hundreds of miles on foot, apparently for nothing.
Yet even in their confusion and frustration, they remain open, prayerfully open. Then one night Paul has a dream in which he sees and hears a man from Macedonia pleading with Paul to come and help his people. Remarkably, Paul is open to the idea that this dream represents God’s “new” Plan A, and he concludes he is to move into brand new territory (i.e., Europe) for God. And remarkably, Paul’s fellow travelers are open to this notion as well.
And so, in the port city of Troas, Paul and company board a ship and set sail across the Aegean Sea for Neapolis, located in the province of Macedonia. In effect, Paul begins his second missionary journey, a journey that will last three years and cover three thousand miles.
We have no record that Paul ever encounters the man he saw in his dream. Instead, he journeys to Philippi, a prosperous, pluralistic city whose residents worship many gods. Paul is way off the Jewish reservation, now, and it only gets worse.
Philippi is so Greek and pagan that it apparently doesn’t have the required number of Jewish men (10) to form a synagogue, which is where Paul would normally hang out for
his preaching and evangelizing. So, Paul opens himself to Plan C, meeting not with Jewish men in a synagogue but with an unidentified group of women who pray along a nearby river.
That’s where Paul hits unexpected pay dirt. Among the group of praying women is Lydia, a Gentile who worships God and a merchant of high-end, luxurious purple cloth who rubbed shoulders with the wealthy elite that could afford such cloth. Paul preaches
and Lydia listens. She becomes a Christ-follower, and in effect, the first Christian convert in all of Europe. Notice that not a word of Paul’s sermon is recorded for the simple reason that Lydia is not converted by Paul’s sermon. Her heart is apparently already open to God, God uses Paul’s sermon to open her heart still more, and God’s Spirit turns Lydia into a dynamic Christ-follower.
That’s the way God is. Open your heart to God an inch, and he will take a mile!
Apparently Lydia’s household is also open to God as they also give themselves to the Spirit of Jesus and are baptized. Then Lydia does the unexpected, opening the doors of her home to Paul and company. Paul is not accustomed to staying with the people he ministers to, least of all a Gentile woman. But Lydia won’t take no for an answer, and
Paul opens himself again to Plan D, staying with Lydia for some time.
And so far as we can tell, the surprises don’t end there. The church in Philippi takes hold, and the first leader of this house church is not a Jewish male… it’s Lydia! Now we are easily up to Plan E, and if Paul had a sense of humor he surely laughs at how the
God he serves keeps pushing him out of his comfort zone.
And if our eyes are open, we see clearly how open Paul and Lydia are to God. That’s why I want to award them both with Purple Hearts.
You and I know Purple Hearts as medals awarded to American soldiers who show
extraordinary valor under fire. Today I want to suggest a different meaning for those sacred medals. What if Christians awarded Purple Hearts to people like Paul and that
vendor of purple cloth named Lydia who display remarkable openness to God’s Spirit
Today you may not be that open to God. But if you are open to being open, to opening your eyes and ears and hearts to God and his will, then I urge you to take the purple ribbon available at the doors as you leave as a reminder of your vow to be open, trusting that one day God will give you a prayerfully open, Purple Heart.
Because here’s the thing. It’s the people with Purple Hearts who start churches on new continents and make a difference for God’s kingdom. And who knows what God could do through you…if your heart was really open?!