Lead me; Guide me

Acts 16:9-15

9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

A pastor was working late on a Saturday night at the Almighty God Tabernacle. Around 10:00 PM he decided to call his wife before he left for home.  Although the pastor let the phone ring several times, his wife didn’t answer. A few moments later he tried again and she answered right away. He asked her why she hadn’t answered before, and she said that the phone didn’t ring.

The following Monday, the pastor received a call at the church office. The caller wanted to know why the pastor had called him Saturday night. The pastor was confused.  The caller said, “It rang and rang, but I didn’t answer.”

Then the pastor remembered the incident and apologized for disturbing him, explaining that he had intended to call his wife and must have dialed the wrong number.

The man said, “That’s okay. Let me tell you my story. You see, I was planning to propose to my girlfriend that night, but before I did, I prayed, ‘God if you’re there, and you don’t want me to do this, give me a sign now. At that point my phone started to ring. I looked at the Caller ID, and it said, ‘Almighty God.’ I was just too afraid to answer!”

            God is calling.  God is calling us to his services, to work as citizens of the kingdom of God.  God calls everyone, women and men, boys and girls, young and old, to bring and live out the good news of reconciliation between God and humanity and amongst human beings.  God is calling, we just need to learn how to listen.

            The text leading up to our scripture for this morning reveals that Paul and Silas are wandering around.  And I use the word wandering intentionally.  They are purposefully wandering, but they are wandering.  They really don’t seem to know where they are going, but they are going there with a purpose…wherever that might be.  They are going to preach and teach about Jesus.  They just haven’t decided yet where that will be.

            I’m not going to try to pretend to know how to pronounce the names of the cities along the way for Paul and Silas, but they find a young man named Timothy in one of these cities and he joins them in their purposeful wandering.  And something seems to happen after Timothy joins their group.  They go from a group of wanderers to a group of apostles called to a specific ministry.

            The text leading up to our scripture tells us that Paul and his companions were prevented by the Holy Spirit from going into a certain region to preach the gospel.  It is impossible to say why they were prevented from going there, but we can make a few guesses.  Perhaps the Spirit knew that their lives would be in jeopardy if they went to that particular place.  Perhaps the Spirit knew that they would not be successful if they went into that region.  But my guess is that God had a specific calling upon the lives of these men and that is why they were prevented from going to the place that they had intended to go. 

Our scripture tells us that Paul receives a vision of a Macedonian man calling to Paul to come and help “us”.  Oh if it were only that easy!  I believe firmly that God has placed a calling on each and every one of us.  God has called us to participate in some way in his kingdom.  God needs workers!  Like Jesus said, The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.  Unfortunately not all of us receive visions like Paul did telling us specifically where and how God wants to use us.  I would venture to guess that most of us have never had this kind of experience.  Our calling rarely, if ever, is that clear.  If God would just give us a vision of how we are to serve him life would be so much more simple. 

            But when we look at the life of Paul, I think we can see that his calling was not always this clear.  We can see Paul’s calling getting more and more clear as he continues to be faithful to his calling.  Paul (Saul) at first thought he was called to be a Pharisee that persecuted Christians.  I think he might have been misinterpreting the call from God.  Jesus then appears to Paul and he is converted.  But we don’t have any scripture telling us that he was being called to preach the gospel, though that is what he does.  He seems to have a leading, a feeling, a sense that this is what he is to do.  He is to share his story of conversion.  He is to share that Jesus is the Messiah that they have been waiting on.  So he goes from city to city telling them these things.

Eventually Paul gets paired up with Barnabas and after they return from a missionary trip we first read in Acts 13 that the Holy Spirit calls for Paul and Barnabas to be commissioned for their missionary work.  What began as a misunderstanding of a call to persecute Christians developed into a sense of a call to mission work which is now being confirmed.  The calling upon Paul’s life is becoming clearer because of his obedience. 

In our scripture for this morning as Paul, Silas, and Timothy are taking off on the next missionary journey we see his calling refined even more.  Go to Macedonia.

            I never intended to live in Virginia.  I felt called in my early 20’s to pastoral ministry, but I always assumed it would be in Ohio.  I knew that I needed to go to seminary for training and I went around to different schools to look into their programs.  We went to Kansas to check out Hesston College’s Pastoral Ministry program.  We went to Elkhart, Indiana to see what Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary had to offer (which included plenty of rain and cold winters).  Ashland Seminary was close by in Ohio.  Maybe that was where I would go so that I could stay close to family.  But I fell in love with Virginia, and I guess Virginia is for lovers. 

I was only going to go to Virginia for seminary.  Three years and I would be back in Ohio.  That was five years ago.  I was called to ministry, and I was being obedient to that calling by attending seminary in Virginia.

            As I was obedient to that calling, I found my call being more clearly defined.  Staunton, Virginia.  What a great fit!  Sonya was working just seven miles away from the church.  Staunton was looking for a part-time pastor.  This was a great way to help pay for my seminary education while getting some real-life experience.  This would work really well for the two more years that I would be in seminary. 

Move to Staunton.  But I was planning to go back to Ohio?!  Okay, Staunton here we come.  And here we stay.  I feel that God has called us to this place.  This is home.  I feel that as I have been obedient to God’s call, God has made that calling more and more clear.  Not everyone is called to Macedonia or Staunton.  But everyone is called to participate in God’s kingdom in some way or another.  And in Paul’s case and in my own, I have found that God’s calling gets clearer and clearer as you submit to God’s call and obediently follow his leading.

            So Paul, Silas, Timothy take off for Philippi, the leading city of Macedonia.  And you may notice that the pronoun used in our text changes from third person plural to the first person plural.  It goes from “they” to “we”.  Many scholars believe that this is where Luke joins in on this missionary trip. 

Verse twelve tells us that Philippi was a Roman colony.  About 30-40 years before Jesus was born, the Romans began to colonize Philippi by providing land to the retired Roman soldiers.  So by the time that Paul would have come through Philippi the city would have had a history of about 80 years of Roman colonization.

So I would bet that when Paul received his calling to go to Philippi that he began to question God’s calling.  First of all, he is going to a place full of Romans, the people that crucified Jesus.  Jerusalem was a city that was occupied by Romans, meaning there was a Roman presence there.  Philippi was wall-to-wall Roman.  Romans didn’t like people coming along and shaking up the status quo.  They were supporters of Caesar and would have believed that Caesar was a god; the son of god.  They would have said things like, “Caesar is lord.”  You can see why Paul might have had some trepidation going into this situation.  To say that Jesus is Lord meant that Caesar was not.

Furthermore, there was not a large population of Jewish people there in Philippi.  Remember that originally Christianity was a movement within Judaism.  The Gentiles had only recently become a part of the missionary efforts.  We know that there were not a lot of Jews in the area because they didn’t even have a synagogue in Philippi.  And to establish a synagogue only required that there be ten Jews in a city.  So Paul would have his work cut out for him.  He wasn’t going into a Jewish community to try to convince Jews that the Messiah that they had been waiting on had arrived.  He was going into a Roman city to try to convert them from worshipping Caesar to worshipping the risen Jesus Christ.

But Paul and the others go to Philippi and they stay there for a few days.  And on the Sabbath they go outside of the city to pray beside the river.  I have no idea why they went to the river, perhaps this is a Jewish custom that I am not familiar with, but they do.  And there they meet a couple of women that have also come to the river to pray.

One of these women is named Lydia.  Lydia is said to be a worshipper of God, or some translations call her a God-fearer.  This is one of the ways that the Bible describes Gentile people that worship the God of Israel in some capacity but have never actually gone through all of the steps to become a Jew.

Lydia is said to be a dealer of purple cloth, or as the King James Version says, she was a dealer of purple.  Do you need some purple today?  I’ve got purple here!  Purple, get your purple!

Purple cloth was a sign of dignity, honor, value, and respect.  It was a color of royalty.  Today we have the option of dyeing clothes in any color along the spectrum because of the invention of synthetic dyes.  But in the first century they would have been limited in the colors available because all of the dyes came from nature.  And purple wasn’t a common color in nature in the 1st century in the Near East.  The dye likely came from a crustacean or a mollusk.  It was kind of hard to come by, and therefore it was expensive.  All of that is to say that Lydia was doing pretty good for herself.

As Paul is teaching Lydia’s heart is opened and she believes and she is baptized, probably right there in that river.  And she invites Paul and company over to her home for supper and to stay at her place for a while.

On this Mother’s Day, I feel that it is appropriate to mention that not only was Lydia baptized, but her entire household was baptized.  This might have meant her husband, children, parents, in-laws, or even friends.  It is hard to say who all was living in Lydia’s home.  She would have likely been able to afford a larger home, so she might have had a large number of people living with her.  She may have had a strong influence on a number of people.  How many of us are here today in part because of the influence of our mothers?

So there is a gathering at Lydia’s house.  A gathering of Christians in the New Testament is referred to as an ecclesia.  If you speak Spanish you probably know the word iglesia, which sounds a lot like ecclesia, because it is the same word.  Iglesia is Spanish for church, ecclesia is Greek for church.  Remember that the 1st century churches met in the homes of believers.  So what Paul was doing was planting the first church in Philippi right there in Lydia’s house.

What do we know about the church in Philippi?  Paul will later write a letter to the church in Philippi.  And the letter to the Philippians is pretty encouraging.  He has a lot of good things to say about this church, to this church, this church that he helped start.

If Paul had been given this calling from God right away, immediately after his conversion, would he have been obedient?  Let’s recap the story.  Paul is given a very clear call to go to the region Macedonia, to the city of Philippi, to preach the Romans.  He was to preach in the city made up mostly of former Roman soldiers and less than 10 Jews.  He was to preach to them the message that Jesus Christ is Lord, God’s only begotten son.  This meant that Caesar was not.  This meant Paul was in danger of being accused of treason.  As he was there in Philippi, Paul felt the call to start a church in Philippi in the home of a Gentile woman that had been a follower of Christ for all of about half a day.  If Paul had been given that calling while he was a young Pharisee persecuting Christians, he might have simply blown it off.  But instead we find God refining Paul’s call as Paul proves himself more and more obedient to God’s calling.  Each step along the way, Paul is gaining confidence in himself and in God.

Had I felt the call to be a pastor at Staunton Mennonite seven years ago when I was first entering into a ministry position, I would likely not have been obedient.  Like Paul, I would have had my excuses.  And good excuses at that!  My family is in Ohio.  My wife’s family is in Ohio.  I had never heard of Staunton.  But as we prove ourselves obedient in taking the small steps along the way, God refines our call making it clearer to us.  And as we prove ourselves obedient, we further develop our trust in God.

I think that one of the biggest mistakes when we talk about calling from God is that we believe that when we are called we often assume that we need to be called to somewhere.  But I believe that our call isn’t always to a “where”, but we are called to a “what”.

We are all called, but we may be called to serve right where we are.  Like Lydia, we might be called to minister to our own family or to provide hospitality to others.  We might be called to start a church in Staunton.  We might be called to serve the poor, tutor students, clean those helicopters out of our neighbors’ gutters.  We might be called to sit and listen to our elderly friends share on their front porch over a cup of tea.  No calling is any more important than another.

Remember that we are the Body of Christ.  And as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12, no part is more important than another.  Some are called to prophesy and some to teach.  Some are called to be encouragers and others are called to be laborers.  The point that Paul makes is that we are all a part of the same body, working together as a unit.  No one person’s calling is more important than another’s.  Without a foot, the body would topple over.

Are you searching for your calling?  Maybe you have sensed a small leading to do something, but you aren’t sure if that is really God’s call.  Or maybe you have tried to discern your calling and you have failed and lost energy because you felt you misunderstood your calling.  Remember Paul started out as a persecutor of the Christians.  He thought that was his calling.  But I think he turned out okay in the end.  As we learn to submit to God, to be his obedient servants, I believe that God will make our calling clearer to us or maybe to those around us.  But it all begins by submitting to God.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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