Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed. Alleluia!]
Since we started the Easter season a month ago, we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts. It’s been different to say the least. Even though today is the last Sunday we’re celebrating this Easter season, we still have a couple weeks left in Acts. The readings have bounced around from chapter to chapter, not really following any set order, not really following a set theme either. So, for us to sit down each week to work our way through these readings can be a bit of a challenge. Today is no different.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of meat on the bones of today’s reading. But some parts of this meal are more of an acquired taste. We pick up in Acts 16:9, which is actually in the middle of a paragraph. This isn’t even the start of the account. But in any case, we start with a vision. Paul has a vision, perhaps a dream in the middle of the night. Through this vision, God calls Paul and his fellow travelers to another part of the world to spread the Gospel there. The spreading of the Gospel is no big challenge to us, but the vision? That’s an acquired taste.
From there, the reading continues with so much detailed geography, that even with a map, it’s easy to get lost. They’re in Troas, heading to Macedonia, traveling though Samothrace and Neapolis to Philippi, which is a Roman colony in Macedonia, to the river just outside the city, where they’re guessing is a place of prayer, where they meet a woman from Thyatira. I can just see your eyes glazing over. There’s a lot packed in there, more than just simple historical, geographic references. But this too is an acquired taste.
So if this reading is not about a vision, if it’s not about geography, what is it about? What’s the main dish? It’s the meat and potatoes. The basics. The good stuff. The stuff that fills your stomach and feeds your soul. It’s the Gospel proclaimed, the Lord at work through His Word, God gathering one more person—one more household—to His family. It’s there in the last two verses of today’s reading. “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And she was baptized and her whole household as well.”
This is what it’s all about. God is at work. It’s all His doing. Notice how those two sentences say what they’re trying to get across. It’s not, “Lydia accepted Paul’s message.” It’s not, “she chose to believe what he was speaking.” It’s not, “Lydia decided to follow Jesus.” Rather, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Who opened Lydia’s heart? It wasn’t Lydia herself. It wasn’t Paul’s preaching. The Lord opened her heart. It’s all God’s doing. And that second sentence is the same way. It’s simple, “she was baptized, and her household as well.” There’s no emphasis on her input, decision, or choice in the matter. It was done to her. The Lord opened her heart. She was baptized.
I don’t mean to belabor this point, but it is important. Especially in our cultural context, everything is about my choice, my decision, my body. I must have full control over what I do, when I do it, and how I choose to do what I want to do. You can’t tell me what to do, you can’t control me. I need to have the freedom to make whatever choice I want, even if it’s what you would call an “evil” one. That determined individualism and absolute autonomy has also fully entrenched itself in the church. You hear it in our music, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” “Here I am to worship.” “My heart will choose to say.” “I will praise You.” It’s all about me. It’s all about praying the sinner’s prayer and accepting Jesus into your heart.
Except that’s not how the Bible talks. That’s not the meat and potatoes of today’s reading, or really any reading. It’s God who softens our hard hearts. He is at work through His Word, both written and spoken, to accomplish want He wants. I am not in control. God is. On my own, I can’t and I won’t make any decision to turn from my sin. We need someone outside of ourselves to save us. You need Jesus. That need doesn’t end just because you’ve become a Christian. In fact, you and I, as Christians, recognize that we need Jesus just as much, if not more than those outside of the church.
It’s why we return time and time again to the basics. The meat and potatoes. The forgiveness of sins. The bread and the wine, the body and the blood. It’s why we can’t get over talking about Jesus Christ, put to death on the cross and being raised from the dead. Everything flows from this Gospel. Everything serves this Gospel. If not, it has no place in the Christian church. It has no place on our plate.
Even those strange acquired tastes from today’s reading fall under that rule. Though they do take some getting used to, they do work to support and proclaim the Gospel proclamation, both in Paul’s day and in our own. The idea of visions is rather off-putting in our modern, “scientific” age. If we can’t work it out by our reason, then it must not be true. But throughout Scripture, we see that God can and does work through dreams and visions. They’re not common. It’s not how God usually works. But it does happen. Here in Acts, this vision of Paul’s leads directly to Lydia’s conversion. She is saved because of this vision. Even today, God can and does use whatever means at His disposal to save His people, including dreams and visions. When these things happen and people come to know Jesus because of them, God is at work. It may take some getting used to. Your palate may never fully adjust, but God is still at work. Can there be false visions, or visions that detract from Christ? Absolutely. We’re careful to check these things against the Word of God. But just because they’re misused doesn’t mean they can’t happen at all.
For many, talking about visions is a whole lot easier than talking about geography. But even here, geography can and does work to serve the Gospel. As Paul and his mission team were traveling throughout the ancient world, there are a couple places the Holy Spirit won’t let them go. For one reason or another, the Spirit of God has a plan for where and when the Gospel will be proclaimed, where and when He will soften hearts, and who will be saved. It sounds a little strange when that happens. Wouldn’t He want the Gospel to be proclaimed everywhere and for all people to be saved? Absolutely. And His plan will make that happen the best. As they are traveling, the Spirit calls them into Macedonia where there’s this city of Philippi. You may be able to guess from the name that this city grows to be one of the flagship churches in the area. It’s to the church in this city that Paul writes His letter to the Philippians. The Gospel flourishes here.
And don’t think God’s forgotten about those other areas He doesn’t let the team travel to. This woman Lydia is from the town of Thyatira. The town of Thyatira is smack dab between two regions the Holy Spirit wouldn’t permit them to go. God still has a heart for all people. He has His plan to save as many as possible. He is at work even through geography to accomplish His will. And even today, that’s the case. He has placed you in a certain geographic location. He’s put certain people in your path each and every day that He intends you to share Jesus with. In the very next chapter in Acts, as Paul travels onward to Athens, he makes this claim, “God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” God made you and determined both when and where in history you would exist. You may not like the taste of that geography, or even evangelism for that matter, but God still uses these things to save His people. He is at work through you where He has placed you to accomplish His will in you.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed. Alleluia!]
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell