Acts 16:1-10 (The Message)
Paul came first to Derbe, then Lystra. He found a disciple there by the name of Timothy, son of a devout Jewish mother and Greek Father. Friends in Lystra and Iconium all said what a fine young man he was. Paul wanted to recruit him for their mission, but first took him aside and made him in a fashion that would be more acceptable to the Jews. For they knew that his father was Greek. As they traveled from town to town, they presented the simple guidelines the Jerusalem apostles and leaders had come up with. That turned out to be most helpful. Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size. They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport of Troas. That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.
The Apostle Paul must have been near the end of his patience this morning as he tried to discern which way God wanted him and his companions to go. Luke tells us that as Paul traveled with Timothy, they attempted to head west into Asia, but the Spirit of God prevented them. So then we find that they tried to the north to some other regions as well, but each time the Spirit of God blocked their path. Who knows what happened… Perhaps the roads were washed away during a flood, or a massive conflict broke out between warring tribes; all we know is that by the time we find Paul and those traveling with him, they had found their way to the port city of Troas.
I wonder what was going through Paul’s mind as they began to settle in for the night once they reached the little town of Troas. Maybe Paul began to question his calling… Wouldn’t you if you were Paul? Doubt would probably be inevitables, especially if we were the ones who had just invested a significant amount of time and energy into something that looked like it was going to end in an ugly mess. There’s actually a mosaic that can be found in Macedonia today that depicts Paul’s time in Troas. It shows Paul on the outskirts of the city in what looks to be a cave, and Paul is leaning against a hard, uncomfortable looking rock. You can see the bags under Paul’s eyes alluding to how tired he was from having journeyed such a great distance for what must have felt like a waste of time and resources. You can just imagine Paul looking up towards the heavens asking, “Why would you send me here, God?”
Who here has ever found themselves ending up in Troas? You see Troas is the last place we ever thought we would end up, it is the place that we associate with failure and disbelief. It is in the town of Troas that we grapple with the hardships of life… Perhaps Troas is the place that reminds you that you didn’t get the job or get into the school that you wanted… Probably Troas is the place that reminds you of a broken relationship or a past hurt that you can’t let go. Probably Troas is the place where you lay awake at night wondering what good, what meaning, can come out of a place that reeks of such unpleasantness. How do we end up in a place like Troas? What good can come out of a place like Troas? And where is God’s Holy Spirit taking us when we think that Troas is all that we can look forward to at the end of our long and hard fought journey.
We have an advantage this morning, which is that we know that it was the Spirit of God that prevented Paul and those traveling with him from entering the into places like Asia and Bithynia. But at the moment I would bet that Paul wasn’t feeling very confident when they were turned away time and time again. And for us in the here and now we might also succumb to the same feelings of dread and fear when we find that we may not be going in the direction that God wants us to… And therefore it would be easier just to give up, to throw in the towel and go back home where we know what to expect and where we know we will feel secure and insulated against a chaotic world.
There are a lot of things that can throw us for a loop when we’re trying to figure out what God wants us to do… And believe me, this happens to pastors just as much as it happens to any other person who comes to church on Sunday morning. There are a number of different things in life that vie for our attention and at the end of the day we quickly find that we have devoted little of that time to God and we are just as confused as we were at the start of the day when we try and figure out where God is calling us. It’s no wonder then that we find that there are so many people who are lost in terms of trying to figure out and make sense of the broader questions that life often presents to us. How can we be prepared for a journey that requires us to be present in both body and soul if we have neglected to attend to the needs of our spiritual selves?
And while we may spend a lot of time worrying which path we will take in life know that God is with us every step of the way. And it’s not our job to get everything right… We shouldn’t be dedicating our time and energy to making sure that everything is “just right,” because that is God’s job, not ours. And if we look at Paul’s journey, we discover that if along the way we became closer to God or learned something new about ourselves than the trip could never have been considered a failure in the first place. That is because the Spirit of God knows all the roads on which we travel. As C.S Lewis once wrote, “God can use all the wrong roads to get you to the right place.” If we are just willing to take a risk, to occasionally mix things up, then we might not only nurture our souls but grow individually and corporately as well.
With things appearing to be bleak in our passage for today, Paul must have been caught off guard when he received a vision from God in a dream. Worrying about what they would do next, Paul probably felt the weight taken off his chest when he saw the man from Macedonia calling out to them, yearning to hear the good news of the gospel. And sometimes we too find that we will be caught off guard when the life-giving, life-changing, work of the Spirit breaks into our world to use what gifts we have to offer to carve out an unexpected path… This means that as individuals and as a church, we have to be open to the mindset that continually seeks to experiment with how we can indeed be God’s hands and feet in the world. Unfortunately, this means that there will be a lot of failures, but the good news is that if we go forward with courage, we will find that God can take one of those failures and show us a new path forward.
We find that lesson being taught in this morning’s passage as Paul receives a vision in a dream from a man in Macedonia. I don’t think that Paul could have possibly imagined that their endless journeying would have led them across the sea to the European continent. What must have appeared to be a failure was redeemed and turned into an opening that would eventually lead to the gospel being spread throughout the rest of Europe. Could you imagine what impact that we as the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown could have if we were open to taking a leap of faith believing that the Spirit will lead us in our mission? While we may not think at the moment the work, we are making as much of an impact, we are never fully aware of how our witness touches the lives of those who are around us.
This narrative is one that has been told a countless number of times… We find that in the Hebrew scriptures that Moses thought his life was over until God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. We see that Simon and Andrew felt that they would be fishermen for the rest of their lives until Jesus called them one day to follow him to become fishers of men. We find that Mary originally planned to have an ordinary life with Joseph until an angel of the Lord turned her life upside down. And we find that each and every one of us here this morning has a story to tell… And while we may not be able to see how our lives have been used for the greater good that God envisions for us, we can probably look around to the various ways that we have had an impact on the lives of others who are both near and far away.
That is why it is so important to recognize that this thing we call ministry is not limited to pastors… It is not limited to elders or deacons, but it is an endeavor that we all partake in… If we try to put the work on one person or a group of people, then is the vision we are trying to maintain one that is genuinely open to the Spirit of God? We have an opportunity… A precious opportunity to be a living witness to what it means to be led by the love and light of God. We have a chance to show what it means to care not only about our own wellbeing, but the welfare and growth of others who live around us as well. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are, or where you are in terms of your walk with God…
I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but the Holy Spirit is what should fuel us, should guide us, as we traverse the waters of life and faith. As the Spirit of God hovered over the turbulent waters that existed at the start of creation, here too the Spirit of God is present as we discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century. How will we be the church that is led by the Spirit of God? How will be a church that doesn’t get caught up on its failures, but asks, “What’s next? What else can we try?” In our attempts to be a church that meets people where they are, we will undoubtedly end up in Troas. But it is in Troas that we will be inspired by the Spirit to pursue feats that go beyond anything we could have possibly imagined if we are willing to trust that our work is part of God’s larger tapestry.
So as we finish this series on what it means to be a Spirit-led church, I have some final questions that I’d like you to consider:
Where do you see the Spirit of God moving in your life?
What are you doing to nurture and grow your own spiritual well being and the well being of others?
And how can we as a church be faithful in our witness to a God who asks us to take risks and dare to dream what lies beyond the other side of the ocean?