A sermon preached on May 5, 2013 based upon Acts 16:6-15.
Luke — one of the four Gospel writers – wrote a sequel called “Acts of the Apostles” which also appears in the New Testament. Acts tells the story of what happened over the 25 years that followed Jesus’ resurrection – how the Gospel was spread outward from Jerusalem. It would probably be better to call the book “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because throughout the book it is quite clear that it is the Holy Spirit that is calling the shots and making things happen as the Gospel spreads out into the Gentile world.
As we read Acts, we’re challenged to ask ourselves, what would our lives be like if we were similarly convinced that we are being lead by the Holy Spirit?
In our passage this morning, the thing that caught my attention was the oddity in the first two verses in which there are two passing references to the Holy Spirit putting up barriers in regards to the direction that Paul and Silas would head as they set off on their mission to spread the Gospel. Apparently, they attempt to head west and the Spirit said “no.” They then tried to go north, and again the Spirit said “you can’t go there.”
That’s strange, I thought. I wondered, how exactly did they come to the conclusion that God’s Spirit wasn’t allowing them to head off in these directions? Did they hear a voice whispering softly within that said, “Don’t go there!”? Perhaps.
But it seems likely that at least part of what brought them to this conclusion was simply the fact that when they tried to head off in those directions, they encountered obstacles that made it very tough-going. In Luke’s mind what exactly those obstacles may have been was an insignificant detail he can overlook because the Holy Spirit is calling all the shots anyway. Maybe it was simply that in that far region of the Roman Empire, the Romans hadn’t gotten around to building the roads for which they were so famous. Maybe it was something as simple as rough terrain to travel. Who knows?
What is striking to me is that because they were convinced that the Holy Spirit was ultimately in charge, it was easy for them to come to terms with these doors being closed to them – they could let it go without a lot of fret.
And that got me thinking about we experience obstacles in life. We can get so frustrated, can’t we? In little things, like wanting to go outside on a day when it’s raining, or wanting to visit a friend, but the car won’t start.
Or in bigger things, like wanting to go to college, but the money just isn’t there to go. Wanting to marry somebody, but that somebody doesn’t want to marry you. Wanting to have your mother with you to see her grandchildren grow up, but it’s not possible because she died.
When things don’t work out the way we want them to, it’s easy for us descend into anxiety and frustrations. Perhaps we get angry, irritable, depressed. Maybe we feel like a failure, because a part of us figures we’re supposed to be the master of our fates.
Maybe the obstacle comes in relationship to something we’ve been doing for a long, long time, but as time has passed, we find our efforts bearing less and less fruit. We keep on doing what we’ve always done before, because it’s what we know, what’s familiar. And yet along with our diminishing returns, we expend a continually increasing amount of energy complaining – why aren’t I get more cooperation! Things should be the way they used to be!
It’s like getting our car gets stuck in the mud and our aggravation leads us to spin our wheels faster and faster, digging a bigger and bigger hole, wearing out our engine, and covering everything in mud.
But what is depicted here in the story of Paul and Silas on their journey is so different. There is an obstacle that doesn’t appear to be moving anytime soon, and quickly they let go of their intention to go in that direction. They accept what life has brought them without a lot of fuss.
This past week I happened to watch a documentary on the dust bowl – the hardships brought upon farmers in Oklahoma and Texas during the 1930s, when draught caused these awful dust storms, and essentially made it impossible to for several years to farm the land at all. I was reminded of the fact that as hard as times can seem for us in the present, people in the past often faced times that were much harder. An old woman was interviewed who had been a child growing up on one of those farms. She referred to her parents as being “good Christian folk”, and describing the remarkable way they simply accepted what in their minds God had given them to bear; they didn’t spend a lot of time complaining and moaning or in excessive worrying. They simply dealt with each day as it came, patiently trusting that the draught and dust would not last forever.
I am reminded once again of the wisdom of the serenity prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change.
Until we accept what we cannot change, we are not likely to look in other directions at what we can change – the second part of the prayer:
The courage to change that which I can change.
So Paul and Silas accepted that God had closed certain doors, which made them open and attentive to signs of where they would find the open door the Holy Spirit had in mind for them. The sign came in the form of a dream Paul had one night in which a man from Macedonia is saying to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” For whatever reason, up until that point it hadn’t occurred to Paul and Silas to cross the sea to enter, for the first time, Europe, an altogether different continent. Perhaps they had simply assumed they would stick to what they knew best, the world on their side of the sea.
But they went. When they got to the city of Philippi, it wasn’t as if things immediately went well for them. It was at least a week before they made their first convert – a woman named Lydia, who sold purple fabric. The first thing Lydia does as a baptized Christian is to offer Paul and Silas hospitality – she invites these wandering preachers into the comfort of her home.
When we feel stuck, when the door we’ve counted on being open has closed down, and we don’t know where to turn, perhaps we would do well to look for the man from Macedonia calling us to help. To ask the question: To whom can I be of service? Who needs help that I’m capable of giving? Who can I offer hospitality to, or a listening ear to, or a ride to the doctor? Whatever is needed.
For better or for worse, the only kind of work I know much about is the work of a preacher, since that’s what I’ve done my whole adult life. And so I am forced to turn to my experience about such things as writing a sermon to give examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about.
In the beginning of the week I read the passage for the coming Sunday, and then read various commentaries, trying to get as clear a picture as I can about what is going on in the passage.
As I do this, I am waiting for some moment of insight to come — some compelling way to connect this particular passage to my life and to your lives. More often than not, it takes a while for this to happen. It often feels like some sort of barrier that has to be overcome for this to happen. As time passes, this barrier can lead to a feeling of frustration arising within me. The barrier just won’t budge.
The one piece of wisdom I’ve gained over the years is that at a certain point, I need to step away. To let go — to accept for the moment that nothing is coming to me, at least on conscious level. When I was younger, I would feel obliged to keep sitting there, as painful as the sitting was, trying to figure out what the passage had to say to me, turning to more and more commentaries, feeling increasingly frustrated, depressed, wondering whether I was mistaken in thinking I was called to preach in the first place.
What I learned to get up and go do something totally different for a while. To accept that the Holy Spirit isn’t ready to give the message to my conscious mind, and that my frustrated persistence is just getting in the way of receiving the message. It involves trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work behind the scenes, and that when I come back later, I’ll see what I wasn’t ready to see before.
I used to get majorly frustrated, now I just get minorly frustrated. Not being able to come up with sermon direction can still affect my mood to some extent, and such was the case this past week as I struggled with this peculiar passage.
So I set it aside. I came to the office and there was a message on my answering machine from Georgia telling me that her husband Tom was in the hospital, having a tough time of it. Tom has pancreatic cancer, which is a pretty devastating form, and he’s been battling for a year and a half now, which is a long time for such a devastating form of cancer. He’s done remarkably well. His doctors have been amazed with how well he’s done – how positive his attitude has been. Just two weeks ago some of you will remember that Tom had a table at our sale. Tom’s been determined all along that he wasn’t going to let the cancer force him to sit on the sidelines of life.
And so I went to see Tom, because in the message from his wife, the Holy Spirit was speaking in a way pretty easy to hear. Tom’s body has taken a toll with all the chemotherapy he’s undergone. He’s in a tough place. But his spirit is remarkably clear and calm. I had come there to help him, and he acted as though my visit and the prayer we shared were helpful to him. But what was obvious to me afterwards was that I had been helped as well. Tom, engaged in this great battle is about as close to a saint as I may meet. This isn’t to say he’s a perfect person, but simply that as he is walking through the valley of the shadow, a great light is shining through him. His heart seems full of love, for his wife and son, and for life itself. He sees life for the gift it truly is more clearly than I do, caught up as I often am in the routines of life, easily frustrated by little setbacks. Being in his presence was for me a blessing, calling me back into the flow of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is present, the distinctions we make between the helper and the helped begin to disappear; the Spirit is flowing in both directions.
Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit, and claiming that gift, we don’t have to spend our days frustrated, anxious and troubled. Let us look for the person we have the capacity to help. In doing so, the Spirit will be leading us, taking us where we are needed, and where we need to go.