May 1, 2016
“The Unexpected Course of the Gospel”
Paul and Silas, Timothy and later, evidently Luke began the travels of Paul's Second Missionary Journey. Immediately before our text, we read of how these men had intended to preach in various places in Asia minor (which is modern day Turkey). But they were frustrated. Something got in the way of it all. Perhaps the circumstances didn't allow it. Perhaps they heard through some direct message from God. We don't really know. Nonetheless, the “Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” to carry on with their own plans.
Instead, Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, saying, “Come and help us”.
Macedonia, you might recall, is just north of Greece. And so by leaving Asia and going to Macedonia, Paul and company are actually moving from one continent to another. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation goes with them – from Asia to Europe.
And so they go. They go to help. But how?
Paul was a tentmaker, but he didn't go to build them shelters. Luke was a physician, but this wasn't a medical mercy trip. All of these missionaries understood that the help these people really needed was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He said “help us”, and so they concluded, “God had called us to preach the Gospel to them”.
So one thing we can learn from the Macedonian Call is that the Gospel is the help that God gives us. It is through the preaching of the Gospel, after all, that the Spirit brings us to faith. It is the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation. How can mere words do such great things? Ah, but this is the Word of God. This is the message of Jesus Christ, who has overcome the world by his death and resurrection. There is no greater friend, no greater gift, no greater help we could ask for.
Perhaps you also need help. People have often told me I need help. But all of us, as sinners, need help – and not in the sense that we will do part and need God's mere assistance to finish the job. Nor in the sense that God does 90% or even 99% of the work, an unequal partner, and then leaves us to finish the job. No, the kind of help the Gospel gives is a saving you from death help. It's a snatching you out of the jaws of Satan help. A help with no contribution from you, no you doing-your-part, no you putting a cherry on top. Grace is free and full, but it is from outside of you – and not just from a different continent – but from God's very throne above, for the sake of Jesus Christ who sits at his right hand.
So they set sail. From Troas to Samothrace, then Neapolis and Philippi, the main city in Macedonia. And now another reminder for us. We don't, most of us, know these cities and places. They are foreign sounding names to us, of cities halfway around the world whose inhabitants are long since gone. Their cultures and customs we would no doubt find strange. We don't know their languages. We really have only clues about their daily lives. So why mention the specifics?
Perhaps, partly, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to real people who live in real places. It could just as easily have been Keller, or Denton, Bedford or North Richland Hills, or Fort Worth. And, in fact, it is to all of those places and the people living in them that the Gospel comes today. Could those early disciples, apostles and missionaries have conceived of us, in modern day America, with all of our strange customs, and fast food, and the internet, and what-have-you.... could they have imagined us hearing and believing also in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
But the Gospel, while a net that is cast wide to draw in the nations – is also a laser beam of individual promise to specific people in specific times and places. So you have been baptized. By name. You have been called. You have been forgiven, redeemed, set free. It's very personal. It's very real.
And so it was for a woman named Lydia.
Paul and friends, upon arriving in a new city, would usually seek out a synagogue and preach first to the Jews. You'd need to have 10 Jewish males to form a synagogue, but apparently there were too few in this major city even for that to happen. But there was a place of prayer. And there were some women gathered there on the Sabbath. And so Paul preached to them, and one of them was Lydia. He came because of the vision of the man from Macedonia, but it began with a word embraced by a woman. And she, Lydia, the first recorded Christian conversion on the continent of Europe.
Again we have a real person with a real history and city of origin, she has a real job selling purple goods. And we know that in some sense, perhaps through contact with Judaism, Lydia was a “worshipper of the true God”. Yet, like many of those, she had not yet heard of the fulfillment of the promises that came in the person of Jesus Christ.
So why would a woman from a far-off land, with plenty of business to tend to, listen to these strange men from an even farther land who come to proclaim a message about a man who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven? Well to that we have the clear answer: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention”. We don't believe of our own accord, you see. Our hearts and minds are closed, locked up tighter than the tomb sealed with a large stone. But the Holy Spirit changes hearts. He creates faith where it wasn't. The Lord and Giver of Life can even bring hearts dead in sin to the glories of eternal life.
And look where it leads next. She and her household are baptized. The Gospel's reach grows. And Lydia's response to all of this is noteworthy, too. She opens her home to Paul and his companions. The offers her hospitality. And thus, she supports the further preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She does what she can with the resources given to her to further the cause so that more would hear and believe in Christ and live.
You, also, dear Christians, are given to support the preaching of the Gospel. Through your own vocations and stations in life, through your generosity or perhaps hospitality. Through your invitation that others would come and see and hear about Christ. And in acts of service and love, by word and deed, to friends, neighbors, co-workers.
You see, the declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is effected by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. When and where he will he creates faith. He strengthens us, not only in our study of the Word, but also in applying that word in our lives. As you forgive your neighbor who has sinned against you, as you hear the words of absolution for your sins, yes, even that deep dark sin. Perhaps when you least expect it. In fact, often when you least expect it.
For who would expect God to have mercy on sinners? Who would think he would send his own son to save? Who could predict that his mission would take him, not to conquest but to cross? And who could have seen that on the third day he would rise? Did anyone foretell his restoration of those wayward and denying disciples? Or imagine that he would turn his most zealous persecutor into his greatest missionary?
Who would see this rag-tag band of preachers traveling thousands of miles, and now even into Europe, to simply tell people about Jesus? Who would think that their first convert would be a well-off woman from some other land? And who knew that she would show them hospitality, and thus help them help the Macedonians by their preaching?
Ah, the unexpected course of the Gospel. I suspect that even as you look back on your life, you can see many unexpected twists and turns whereby God did great things for you. That he builds whole households on this gospel is even better. And that one day your eyes, closed in death, will be wakened again to glory – well that will be the final surprise.
Nothing about this should really surprise us, though, for God has promised it all. And he has promised it not just to someone, or even to all, but also to individuals, like Lydia, and like you.
No matter what baggage you bring, how sketchy your past, how big your sins. Christ has died for you. No matter where you come from. No matter how unlovable you feel, how ashamed you are, or what this world of pain and death has thrown at you. Jesus is alive, and he is your Savior.
So go in peace. You are baptized. Your sins are forgiven. Serve the Lord with gladness. Amen.