The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 22, 2022
God encourages us to harbor wild hopes about the difference for good we can make in this troubled world.
Very often, however, while our intended final destination is clear, the exact means by which we reach it is not at all obvious from the start. We have to learn as we go, with stops and starts and a few wrong turns.
For example, I’ll bet each of us here who follows Jesus harbors the wild hope that God will use us to minimize the likelihood of any more hate-filled acts of violence such as beset Buffalo and Laguna Woods last weekend. But I’ll bet too that almost all of us wishes it were clearer what precise role we are to play in that big cause.
The Apostle Paul harbored the wild hope that God would use him to make disciples of Christ in far-flung corners of the world, plant new churches and strengthen young churches. But he, just like us, had to find out how to follow up on that wild hope by taking a wild journey of discovering God’s will, one step at a time. Paul, just like us, had to rely on God’s faithfulness in revealing the next steps at just the right moment.
As Paul and his companions were feeling their way forward in the mission they believed God had given them, they were travelling generally westward through what we now call Turkey. Their exact itinerary was decided upon as they thought strategically and kept sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, whether it came by an inward prompting or by an outward sign from circumstances. They surely seemed to be aiming to eventually land in Ephesus, a large city around which was centered a vast swath of western Turkey in Asia and eastern Greece in Europe.
When moving in the direction of Ephesus, the Holy Spirit took over their itinerary. First the Spirit “forbade” them – in ways not specified – from going the normally best way for arriving at Ephesus. Then later, the Spirit “did not allow” them to go on another route so as to put them in a position in which they had no choice but to head toward a place they hadn’t had in their sights: Troas, the area’s major port on the Aegean, the sea that separates the continent of Asia from the continent of Europe.
Paul’s original plan to do extensive ministry in Ephesus was not blocked altogether by the Spirit’s intervention, but only put off for a while – and enhanced thereby! For, from the instructions the Spirit gave them in Troas, they first planted churches along the eastern edge of Europe before Paul finally settled into a nearly three-year-long ministry in Ephesus. As a result, strategic mission outposts were, prior to that ministry in Ephesus, established at every point, both in Europe and in Asia, on the circumference of the circle of which Ephesus was the center. Thus, the delay of Paul’s plans made the realization of those plans happen at a better time and become all the more impactful as a result. The earlier prohibitions of the Spirit did not thwart Paul’s wild hopes, but advanced their fulfillment in the end!
In Troas, Paul had a vision in the night in which there appeared “a man of Macedonia” who “pleaded” with Paul to come over and help them there in Europe. Paul and his pals took the dream as a message from God telling them to change their travel plans and go into Europe for the very first time. So immediately they set sail for Neapolis, the Macedonian port city nearest Philippi. As a confirming sign from the heavens, the winds blew unusually strong in their favor, and they crossed the Aegean in just two days when it normally took five.
When Paul visited a new city, it was his custom to attend the local Jewish synagogue on the first Sabbath after his arrival to make the message about Jesus known “to the Jews first”. In Philippi, however, there was not even the minimum number of Jewish men to constitute a synagogue. But there was an unofficial meeting place along a river bank where some observant Jewish women and God-fearing Gentile women gathered in an unauthorized Sabbath service. Paul attended and participated. One of the Gentile leaders in the group, a businesswoman named Lydia, “listened eagerly” to him about Jesus, was moved to put her faith in Jesus, and was baptized on the spot – Paul’s first convert in Europe!
That the first new Christian in that previously un-evangelized continent would be a Gentile, and a woman at that, must have been a surprise to Paul, but one he could see was perfectly in line with the wild hope God seemed to be pursuing – of creating a new community in Christ made up of every kind of human being (of every gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status), a community in which folks extend to one another open-hearted hospitality like loving brothers and sisters in a close-knit family, one in which everyone deferred to each other as each did their particular assigned part to accomplish their shared mission together.
Let us harbor the wild hope God would lay on our hearts: that we’d build a diverse family of gracious mutual support, that we’d defend each and every one against hatred and violence, and that we’d collaborate with God and each other to raise up more folks to make a difference for good in our troubled world.
Let us embrace whatever wild journey of on-the-go learning God wants to take us on to get us there!