The Macedonian Challenge
One of God’s natural wonders that lies here in Michigan is Warren Dunes. They are a bit like Sleeping Bear Dunes. Have you ever made the trip over to the Michigan lakeshore to see the dunes? Basically they are big hills of sand, standing watch over the shoreline. Michigan is home to the largest dune system in the world, associated with a freshwater lake. Now besides the natural wonder and beauty of these dunes, there is the opportunity to try and climb up them, but I would warn you that this is not as easy as it seems, because with every step you take your foot sinks into the sand and back down the hill. Also the heavier you are the worse this problem becomes. A lot of people climb the dunes, but it can be a challenge.
I think that sometimes Warren Dunes is a good metaphor for life or maybe ministry. Have you ever felt like every three steps forward seems to take you two steps back? Sometimes progress in church work is a slow process. I once read a book concerning the creation and building of Youth Ministries. The author made one point by saying the problem is not that we fail in our efforts, but that we fail too slowly. This is to argue that with every failure should come another effort and eventually success. We do not find our answers, our own niche, or move forward in ministry without encountering that which does not work and be able to lay it aside for a new and better effort. Failure is not the problem, but rather continually supporting that which does not helps us to gain ground and being unable to give up that which is not carrying us to our goal is the issue. This is the process of setting a meaningful vision and mission for our church. One must be careful before we set anything as unalterable, or unchanging because then we might just be stuck, and not moving up the hill at all.
However, no one promised the work of a church is going to be easy or quick. This point is made clear in our scripture reading for today.
The Apostle Paul had set out on his second missionary journey. Traveling North out of Jerusalem, and Galilee, Paul traveled through Syria and modern day Turkey. He stopped at some of the places he had been to previously (Derbe, and Lystra). As he continued to travel in this direction Paul had intended on traveling north up toward the Black Sea, but in verses 6-8 we read, “6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And in verse 7 we are told that “they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” ; 8 so, …, they went down to Troas.
Basically, at every point of decision in the journey, Paul and his companions, found themselves being pushed West until they came to Troas which was a city on the Aegean Sea, and just across these waters was Greece. Here in Troas Paul had a vision in the night of a Macedonian pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now my interpretation of this event is that Paul experienced something stronger than an average dream. He was either awake and saw something, or he had a dream in which he knew that God was speaking to him. Maybe with all the issues of this journey and being turned away from doing what he wanted to do, Paul felt like he was at the point of turning around and going home. He wanted to travel Northeast and God kept directing him west. Now he was at the boundary of Asia and God is calling him to travel across the waters into present day Europe. Here there has always been something of a divide culturally and politically. It may have not been Paul’s natural inclination to jump that divide into Greece and out of the more familiar Middle Eastern culture. Just consider today the difference that comes to your mind when you think of Greece as versus Turkey. However now Paul certainly knew what God wanted. Paul had a certainty that God had been leading him all along. All those problems that seem to prevent him from taking the route he wanted to take were providence. All those inclinations and urgings that seemed to direct him westward was God’s direction, but this was a major change. Now Paul – and with him the gospel – would enter Europe. In the process, they would both move a step closer to Rome. One might wonder if the history of western culture might not have been different if Paul had not had this vision of a Macedonian man pleading for help.
The voyage across the Aegean takes only a moment to read in the text, but it required at least two days to make. All that time Paul and any traveling with him must have been caught somewhere between anticipation and apprehension. Each hour they were moving away from the world more familiar to them and closer to something unknown. What was to come next? Does Paul find the man in his dream who was asking for help? Even if it was a dream Paul very well may have been looking for him. Is the message of Jesus quickly taken up and a new church easily started?
Well if we read further, we discover nothing really worked out too easily for Paul. It was more like three steps forward the two steps back. They traveled inland from that port city of Neapolis (nee-AP-o-lihs), and they arrived shortly at the important city of Philippi (fih-LIHP-ai). There they looked for a local synagogue. As was Paul’s custom he would take his message to the people of his own faith first. However, when they got to Philippi, Paul and his companions found no synagogue. The formation of a synagogue required a minimal number of Jewish men. Apparently, Philippi did not have even this small number. This was probably a bit discouraging for Paul. The apostle had been beckoned over to Macedonia to help, but where were the people who wanted his help? Where was the familiar face of the man in his vision or of his own people.
In the absence of a formal synagogue, there was a Plan B. Local Jews and God-fearing people would designate a “place of prayer.” This was often close to a local body of water. And that is just where Paul found a group of women gathered for worship when the Sabbath day came. Not only were there an insufficient number of Jewish men in Philippi to form a synagogue, it seems there were hardly any Jewish men there at all.
Still, like a good golfer, the apostle Paul would play the ball where it lies. He did not find a synagogue. He did not find the Macedonian man from his vision. Indeed, he found no men that Sabbath day at all. But he found a small gathering of earnest women, and he sat down and spoke with them. Here Paul met Lydia. She was from Asia Minor but had come to live in Philippi and traded in Purple cloth. This color of cloth was the domain of kings, governors, and priest. Lydia was in a high end industry, living in a center of Roman trade, and catering to people of high social status. We may assume that she was living fairly well off.
Upon hearing Paul’s word she took the message to heart, believed it, and she and her household were baptized, and then she invited Paul and his companions to stay at her house. Lydia has the distinction of became the first convert in Europe. Three steps forward, but if you continue to read further, the next story you encounter is Paul being arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for having cast a demon out of a women who was following them around. For his troubles Paul found himself with his feet fastened to heavy blocks of wood. I wonder if Paul did not want to reconsider that vision he had in Troas? How was it that God should lead him to this place and everything was such an uphill climb? But then as Paul sat in prison the story ends with an earthquake opening the jail up and Paul leading the jailor and his family to Christ. In a most dramatic fashion God delivered Paul and Silas.
Now there is a lot that can be preached on here, but the point that I am looking at is that despite God’s clear call and direction, Paul found himself dealing with a number of issues and problems all along the way. Success in ministry was not easily accomplished. It did not come without effort, without hardship, or without God. There was no clear rule for Paul to follow as he was trying to figure out what to do next. It could even be that the writer did not bother putting down all the things that they tried to do that didn’t work, or all the people they talked to that simply walked away. Acts tends to record where success was found, and the scriptures hold this dynamic witness of how the gospel message began in Europe and started to come west. Europe was beginning to hear of the message of salvation.
To me this story serves as an illustration of how we should think of ministry today. Should we assume that success and church growth will come without effort? Should we think that we are going to know where we are going every step of the way? Should we presuppose that we know the people God will send us to if we make ourselves available? Well the answer to all these questions is no. Should we trust God in the midst of unknown places and believe that we are indeed in the midst of God’s plan even if times should grow difficult. Of course the answer to this question is yes.
Paul may very well have altered the course of religion within our world, because he answered what I have called the Macedonian Challenge. What urgings and directions are there in your life, or in the life of the church that we need to answer today? How is God leading and directing us? Are we listening? Dare we listen if God speaks? Let us always pray, and listen, and move forward according to the call. Amen.