The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 7, 2019
Christian writer Wendell Berry introduces us to a character named Jayber Crow. Crow believes God has guided him throughout his life – by mostly surprising means whose ends are only seen after the fact.
Crow says, “Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me, or I have gone to it, mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my faint, high hopes have rested on bad, [low-minded] low mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake the feeling I’ve been led by God.”
I share Crow’s thoughts and feelings. I too am grateful for how God has guided my life in faithfulness and loving kindness, though I too am often stumped to discern what his leading means until after it has achieved its purpose. I too am surprised by what God’s guidance leads me to and by what means it leads me there.
Christian experience gives many examples of God’s getting us where we need to be by first saying No to something else and thereby putting us in a position where we can hear His Yes in the appropriate context. His negatives, in other words, can be crucial to attaining His positive goals. He says No to good things that we might say Yes to the best things. Let me illustrate from my personal life.
I am someone who loves to plan his work, and then work his plan. I hate being thwarted from following my plan. Three days, I had planned to do a good thing: work some more on this very sermon. But I kept getting cut off from getting to it. I felt frustrated and angry. Yet, I soon realized that God was saying No to what I deemed most important, that I might say Yes to something even more important: Continuing a vitally important conversation with my father-in-law. The day before, the two of us had broached a difficult but crucial subject: his increasing loss of short-term memory and the dangers it poses for him and those he cares about. He had then resisted facing reality; but, afterward with a chance to think things over, he came to admit to himself that the issues had to be addressed. So Friday he initiated the conversation we’d begun on Thursday. Because God had said No to my working on the sermon, I was available to engage in an activity far more necessary.
The Apostle Paul knew this process of God’s closing one door to create an opening for a more vital activity. In the events described in today’s scripture, Paul was on his second missionary journey, working his way across what we now call Turkey, to bring the gospel to those who had never even heard of Jesus. Traveling through the southern regions of Galatia and Phrygia, Paul thought it a good idea to keep going west into a region of Turkey called Asia. But, Acts tells us, the Holy Spirit forbade his continuing in that direction. So Paul, Silas and Timothy turned northward instead. Having made that right turn, they began to wonder whether God intended to send them to the north coast of Turkey, to a place called Bithynia. But, Acts again tells us, the Spirit of Jesus would not allow it. So they turned west yet again, though further north than before, passing through a region called Mysia. They thereby ended up at the western port city of Troas. The closing off of other paths had brought them right where they needed to be. So, when God gave Paul there a night vision of a man from the Greek state of Macedonia begging him to come over to Europe, and Paul recognized that God was telling him by it to rethink his planned itinerary, Paul easily follow God’s detour just by hopping on to one of the ships knocking with the changing tide against the wooden pylons of the pier just outside his window.
So all the closed off alternative routes were God’s way of God’s creating an easy opportunity for Paul to cross the Aegean Sea, enter Europe for the first time and bring the gospel to the unreached people there. Paul could easily take a beeline to Macedonia, stopping only once at the Greek island of Samothrace to resupply the ship, and arrive ASAP at the Greek port city of Neapolis, a stone’s throw from Philippi.
Sometimes learning what we are not supposed to do brings us closer to learning what we are to do, and heeding God’s No puts us in a position to hear and embrace God’s Yes. By frustrating Paul’s plans, God opened a door for the gospel to be brought to a new continent.
Paul already had some acquaintance with this pattern in God’s guidance. On his first missionary journey, God had imposed a detour upon Paul’s itinerary when Paul fell ill. The sickness closed the door on his travel plans and caused him to linger longer than he intended n Galatia, where he ended up building a strong and important church.
Earlier in Paul’s second missionary journey, Paul had already, thanks to riots and opposition in places like Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, heard God say No to Paul’s plans and redirect His apostle into ministries he didn’t yet have in sight. God would keep leading Paul by the same means after he ventured forth into Europe. At the end of Paul’s third and last missionary journey, when he was about to leave Greece to go to Israel, Paul caught wind of an assassination plot against him, which caused him to turn around and return to northern Greece and eventually Turkey, where he did significant ministry and from where he was launched to bring the gospel to the power centers of the Roman empire – wonderful things that would not have happened had God not closed the door on some genuinely good things on which Paul had set his aim.
Today too God closes doors to create openings for showing God’s love with greater effect.
Twenty-five years ago, chiropractor Perry Hefty and his wife Arlys felt convinced that God had given them a beautiful dream of establishing a retreat center for missionaries on temporary leave: a retreat center where they could rest, recuperate and be reinvigorated.
One day, when Perry was praying that God would show him how to raise $2.5 million to build such a center, Perry heard a response from God. The response was, “No, Perry, just use what you now have.”
So Perry and Arlys started doing what they already could: they gave free chiropractic services to missionaries in financial and physical need. Over the past quarter since, they’ve given away hundreds of thousands of dollars of services – about a third of their business – to restore missionaries to good health and inner peace.
Many missionaries return to the states exhausted, discouraged, and stressed out over having to raise ministry support. “So” Perry says, “we’ve dedicated our all to healing and restoring God’s servants.” He and Arlys don’t just give skeletal adjustments; they pray for people, counsel them, encourage them, renew them, and build relationships that last years.
God’s plans put our best plans to shame. Thus, God closes doors to the good things we have in mind to create openings into still better things. Let us pray.