This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 26th May 2019.
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67:2; John 14:23-29
In our story from the Christian Traditions this morning we read how Paul heard God speak in the visionary voice of a man of Macedonia, leading Paul to change his direction and go there instead of elsewhere to proclaim the gospel. Paul headed straight for the capital city, Philippi, by as direct a route as he could find: Samothrace is a mountainous island and so a bit of a navigational landmark, and Neapolis is the coastal part and maybe the port town for Philippi. So it looks like he’s in a hurry (and wouldn’t you be if God had called you with such a demonstration) and he has no interest in side-tracks or delays. And once Paul and his crew get to Philippi they do nothing until Shabbat when they leave town and find a quiet place to pray, probably to ask something like “righto God, we’re, now what?”
So, Paul is not necessarily shunning the synagogue, there probably isn’t one in Philippi so he goes where the Jews go, which is beside the river, and it is there that the crew meets Lydia of Thyatira. So, who is Lydia? Well, she is Greek, (her name tells us that), and she’s from Thyatira in the district of Lydia which is later named as host town for one of the seven churches of Revelation. We know therefore that Lydia is neither Jewish nor Judean, but we are told that she honours God as revealed within Judaism, and one of the Greek words used to describe her is used elsewhere in Acts to describe people who are “devout”, so we can join the dots there, maybe. Anyway, Lydia receives the missionary’s baptism and she invites Paul’s group into her home.
This is a sort of Paul-version of the conversion of Cornelius under Peter’s tutelage from Acts 10 which we foreshadowed a few weeks ago when we heard about Tabitha of Joppa. Where Cornelius was on active duty at Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea and where Pilate and his mates lived most of the time: Philippi is also a military town but is a veterans’ colony, so a soldier settler place. Lydia is a trader who sells upmarket clothing, probably just the thing for Mrs Centurion in her husband’s retirement, so she’s a great social contact for Paul in Philippi. But, but, even more important than her entre to “farshion” and society, the fact that Paul does take up her offer of hospitality demonstrates that he accepts her as a sister-in-Christ. She’s a Christian, and many would say she’s the first European convert.
So that’s all pretty good then. Lydia accepts Christ, Paul accepts Lydia, and the gospel and its missionaries have an opened door to European soil via a respectable city of good, middle class retirees with disposable income. But none of that would have been the situation if Paul had hushed the Spirit and pushed into Roman Asia or Bithynia. So I wonder, has God ever closed a door on you like that? Has God closed several in a row like that? Twice the Spirit resisted Paul’s attempts to change state, until God spoke to Paul in this vision and gave him the direction God wanted Paul to go. Sometimes we hear no (and need to hear no) before we hear yes/go. So, do you know how to “Praise God in the Hallway” as some would have it; can you walk forward until God opens an eventual door? How far, or for how long, can you walk that dark corridor of locked doors until you tell God you’ve had enough and you decide to kick one in just to reach the sunlight?
The compositor suggests in Psalm 67:2 that one of the observable signs of God’s blessing is when God’s way is made known; in other words you know God loves you when God actively directs you. This is good to remember, especially when all God seems to be saying to you is “no, not there,” or “no, not yet,” and it’s never “yes” or “here”. Sometimes, from experience, I wonder what is worse; is it when God is always saying “no”, or is it when God isn’t saying anything at all? Experience, again, prefers silence, because at least when God is silent you can sit down in good conscience and wait for instruction. When God is saying “no” and you’re not even allowed to sit down, so you’re bobbing up and down like a child anticipating the paused soundtrack in a game musical chairs you look and feel like an idiot. As a preacher I’m supposed to tell you that the clear voice of God is always preferable to the complete silence of God, as a Christian of some life experience I will tell you that that is not true. But yes, the psalmist is right, if God is talking to you and showing an interest in your way then you know that God is interested in you for you, and that is good: it worked out well for Paul, and for Lydia because Paul was faithful. It has and always did work out well for me too, but theological hindsight can be a bit arrogant too; waiting is hard, but it’s worth it.
In today’s story from the Jesus Traditions, drawn from John 14:23-29 and Jesus’ last meal with his mates we get to earwig in on Jesus saying much the same thing. If you love me, he says, then you’ll do what I ask: not because I’m a diva but because I’m speaking the words The Father has given me, and God’s words are good stuff. This is how Jesus reveals God to the Church and not to the world at large, so to this degree the message is hidden. Jesus is speaking in this situation to his mates, the twelve around the table, and through the gospel as a book to the Church, the ones who love Jesus and only to them. The world will not do as Jesus commands, they don’t love him and they don’t know him; so why should we expect them to obey someone they don’t know or love? Who is God to tell them what to do, God is a stranger to them. But God is not a stranger to us, just as God was not a stranger to Paul, or Lydia for that matter, and just as Jesus was not a stranger to any of the twelve. Jesus is lord to us and friend, and how does Jesus know this, well just as the psalmist said, because we listen to the One who speaks to us and we do what God tell us. And when we do that, and don’t do what God tells us not to do (or do what God has not told us to do), when we do what God tells us to do then God acts through our doing and great stuff, God stuff, gets done.
Well that sounds good doesn’t it? Do what God tells you to do, because if you know you’re being directed by someone whose love for you is wider than the cross, then you are confident that won’t be told to do something dangerous or stupid. And God will work in your doing, and great things happen like the coming of the gospel to the continent of Europe: glory to God, kudos to Paul. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of what God is doing in the world; does anyone here not want to be involved when God starts doing stuff in Kaniva and Serviceton? When I’m calling for volunteers on God’s behalf is there anyone who’d rather keep his or her hand down? Yeah, didn’t think so, so we’re all agreed: God, come and tell us what to do.
And what if God did, and God said…“wait, just sit.”
And what if God did, and God said…“not now.”
And what if God did, and God said…“not there.”
And what if God did, and God said…“no, not there either…or there.”
Last week we spoke a bit about places where it can be hard to be a Christian, but where the hardest of Christians live as a response. Not the sooky flabby Christians of Australia, people like you and me who need to HTFU, harden the faith up; but proper Christians who deal with persecution and violence and may face a choice between Christ and murder, or denial and release. Inspiring stuff, and I pray that you are continuing and contending in prayer. It’s still Ramadan until sundown on 2nd June, and it will still be the twenty-first century in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East well after that. That kind of horror does hold some fantasy about it, that God might call you not to Macedonia but to The Maldives, or Medina, or…someplace in North Korea that starts with “M”. Martyrdom and heroism, what a calling! But to be honest, all of us in this room will probably be called to stay if not in this room then at least in this district, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are absent. And God will call you “not there, not yet, not now,” blah de blah. What do we do with that?
Well, we do what Jesus commands via John 14:26, we wait for the Advocate and we lean on God. Just because the instruction to go is not coming yet does not mean that Godself is absent: Holy Spirit is here, now just as much as Holy Spirit will be with us there, later. You don’t have to wait for God without God, wait for God with God. An interesting piece of Christian language is that we “wait on God”. “On.” Think about that for a sec. Do we wait on God as if God is a chair or a mat, or a playful Daddy lying on the floor with his toddler sitting on his chest? Do we wait “on” God? Meh, why not, that can work, can’t it? Or do we wait on God as if God is a patron and we are wait staff, waitresses and waiters, maybe Baristas if we’re hip enough. While God is sitting and waiting, and causing us to not go there and not go now, maybe we can serve God where we are. Okay God is not in a cafe, but have some imagination in your prayer and worship, what would it look like in real life to “waiter on God”.
In two weeks’ time we will have reached the end of the Christian season of Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost will be upon us. I’ll be in red, you’re welcomed to join in, and we’ll talk about fire and wind and power and spirit and language and it will be awesome. But do we have to wait another fortnight for awesome? Do we have to wait only another fortnight for awesome? What if we wait a fortnight and the only awesome thing is my red shirt, and it’s an otherwise “Sunday in West Wimmera”. These are not rhetorical questions, I do want you to answer them, but not now and not here.
Two weeks after Pentecost we enter the Christian season of Creationtide, and I’ll be in green until the Sunday before Lent. That period in Christian thinking is about growth and newness, so yes there is some waiting involved but as all of you who are farmers know, or know someone who is a farmer know, if you just wait for growth and do nothing then nothing will grow. I have asked the Shared Ministry council, so the Uniting Church elders and councillors and the Church of Christ deacons together, to ask God what God is saying to Kaniva and Serviceton, and what God is saying to the Shared Ministry church. I invite you to join them, join us really because I’m on that council too. Ask God, what do you want from us, and what do you want for us? What do you want for our towns, Lord?
Maybe there’s another Paul somewhere who tonight will see a vision of a “Man of Wimmera” begging him to come. Maybe there’s a man or woman in Wimmera who tonight will see a vision of a “Man from ‘someplace in North Korea starting with M’”, or “Melbourne”, or “Merretts South Road”.
Let’s be ready, whether we are Paul or Lydia in the coming story, let’s be ready.