Once, while I was a pastor in Indiana, I flew home to Virginia for vacation. It was night when I flew into Richmond, VA. I rented a car and began the two hour drive on I-64 West and I 81 North home to Harrisonburg, VA. Having lived in Williamsburg, VA for College and Richmond, VA for Seminary and work, I had traveled this highway corridor for years. I knew it like the back of hand. And I had never had trouble driving it at night before. But after a while I realized that more than two hours had past and I was still driving in the night. I pulled over to realize that I was in Lexington, Virginia. I had missed my exit and driven an hour in the wrong direction. Why? Because I had recently gotten into a relationship and I was thinking about the woman I was dating rather than the road I was driving on. I wasn’t paying attention and thus I passed by my exit resulting in a trip that took twice as long.
I think my experience of missing my exit and driving an hour in the wrong direction reflects the fear many Christians have of missing out on God’s Will for their lives. Sometimes following God’s Will feels like driving down a dark highway at night. Our headlights penetrate the darkness far enough that if we pay attention we can hit the brakes if a car in front of us slows down, or if a deer appears in the middle of the road suddenly. And indeed, not paying attention to God’s Will in our lives can lead to negative consequences. It can set us back in our walk of faith. But today there is good news.
The good News: Even when we are not paying attention God has ways of getting our attention.
God gets our attention
- By opening our hearts to hearts to his Word.
- By giving us Holy nudges.
- By Communicating with us through dreams and visions.
First, God gets our attention by opening our hearts to the Gospel. In our passage today, Lydia, a successful business woman who sells expensive purple clothe, has her heart opened to pay attention to what Paul has to say about Jesus being the Christ or Messiah. Lydia was a God fearer, a convert to Judaism. She knew her Bible. She knew about the idea of the Messiah. Yet, Paul’s message of Jesus as the messiah differed from expectations of the day. Some thought the Messiah would be like King David, a King who would kick the Romans out of the country. Others thought the Messiah would be a priestly figure. Still others thought the Messiah would be like John the Baptist, a bear grills sort of character that would encourage people to forget about it all and go commune with God in nature. While Jews understood the concept of a Messiah no one believed at the time that God would ever allow his anointed one to die the most shameful death imaginable, death on a cross and rise from the dead in three days. Jesus told his disciples he would die and rise from the dead. But the disciples couldn’t hear that message because it did not meet their expectations. Paul says that the message of the cross is foolishness to the world. It is a stumbling block to Jew and Gentile alike. And that is why only Lydia came to believe. The message of a crucified messiah was silly talk. No one believed it in the day. But God opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention. If God doesn’t open our hearts to pay attention to his word it doesn’t matter what our preaching style is. If we use notes or we don’t. If we are looking at people or we don’t. If we are reading the text or we don’t. If we crack jokes or we don’t. If God doesn’t open our hearts to see the Glory of his Only Begotten Son it doesn’t matter our style. Because only God can open our hearts to Christ. Because the message of Christ in and of itself is a stumbling block.
Second, the Lord gets our attention by giving us what I call Holy nudges. Our passage today tells us that the Holy Spirit forbade Paul, Silas, and Luke from going into Asia and Bithynia. I can’t be sure exactly what is happening. But I think in my Christian life and yours we all have experienced what I like to call Holy Nudges. The Spirit, speaking to us in prayer, nudging us forward to a particular decision. I believe that Paul is not trying to disobey God in this passage. But he is testing the Spirit. When the Spirit speaks to us, he speaks to us all differently, and it is somewhat subjective. Because it is a subjective experience we don’t want to act on a nudge to quickly because it might not be from God. But if it is from God it will tend to continue over time. And that is what is happening to Paul. He is getting these nudges from the Spirit over time. And finally he decides to take a break to hear what the Spirit is saying. And that is when God speaks to him in a vision.
Finally, sometimes God gets our attention through dreams and visions. This is not super common in the old or new testament. And it is not super common today. Being here for two and a half years I know some of you have experienced dreams and visions as I have. But even if we a supernatural vision or even a strong conviction about what God intends us to do. I think our text shows us today that some interpretation is required. In our passage today Paul sees a vision in the night of a Macedonian man asking for help. What type of help? Mow the lawn? Pick out a wardrobe? Put out a fire? He doesn’t say. Notice the man doesn’t ask them to preach the Gospel he just asks Paul to come and help them. Paul and his band conclude, that since they have decided to preach the Gospel, that preaching the Gospel is the help this man requires. While the dream was extraordinary it required some reasoning and interpretation.
Paul shows us another important principle that is not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Even if we have a strong conviction that things are supposed to go a certain way we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. When Paul got to a new town it was his practice to go the local synagogue and preach, since he assumed that Jews would be most receptive to Jesus as the Christ or Messiah. Yet Jewish law at the time stipulated to form a synagogue you needed ten men. Apparently, there were not ten Jewish men in Philippi at the time for Paul does not go to the synagogue to speak as was his normal practice. This must have confused Paul, since based on the vision, he must have thought he was there to minister to a man, or men in general. That didn’t stop Paul he went to witness to the women by the river. There he meets Lydia and she becomes the foundation of the church in that area.
Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 13:12 it says we see only in part, our knowledge is imperfect, we prophesize only in part, we read the scripture only in part, but one day when Christ returns we shall be known fully as we are fully known. Till that day comes we have to keep going. Proverbs 16:9 says a man plans his way but the Lord guides his steps. God generally doesn’t move things that are not moving. And for him to move in us we got to keep going even when the vision doesn’t work out the way we thought it should work out.
As I was thinking of an example of how paying attention to God can help lead us in God’s Will I was reminded of an experience I had when I went on vacation in January. Around November of last year I was feeling rather burned out from ministry. My counselor recommended I take two of my four weeks of vacation at once to give my self a greater period to rest. So I decided to take off two weeks in January. Yet, I was not sure what to do with the time. I am single and I don’t like that traveling by myself. I knew that Presbyterian Reformed Ministry International, a ministry by which I have received a lot of healing in my heart, was having their annual fellowship in Black Mountain, North Carolina. And frankly my experience of this ministry was like a bag of jelly beans, a mixed bag of good and bad flavors.. But the gathering was in Black Mountain, North Carolina and was sort of expensive. I was not sure I wanted to travel the distance and spend the money to go. But gradually, over a month or so, I felt a strong nudging of the Holy Spirit, that I should attend this ministry’s annual gathering. When I finally booked the retreat online I felt a great release. I knew I hadn’t just booked a retreat. I knew I had done something God had wanted me to do. Though I did not know why at the time.
The last sermon I preached before I went on vacation was on January 13. That night I went to bed physically exhausted. It was like a weight had been lifted off my body. I wasn’t paying attention to my body or my emotional state because I was so focused on ministry. And perhaps that is how you are feeling today. You having been paying attention to your own needs, to your own emotions, to your own body, and you are burned out, and you don’t even know how burned out you are. I didn’t realize it but I had been pushing myself too hard. That night I also had a very strange dream which I believe was from the Lord. I have to preface this by saying that 99.9% of my dreams are not from the Lord. My two most common dreams are I am in college and I haven’t studied for a test. In another dream I am flying on a invisible bicycle. So if you have ever dreamt about what your pastor is dreaming about congratulations today is your day. But based off my experience in the retreat I do believe this particular dream was from the Lord.
In this dream I was in a big house being lead through various rooms by some sort of guide. In one room I found a devil like figure, or at least what we picture the devil to be like. He had big horns and a red face. He looked sort of cartoonish, sort of evil, but also sort of funny. . I remember asking this figure, “Are you Satan?” And he replied, “No, I am the bait of Satan.”
I woke up that morning wondering what I ate the night before? I wondered about that phrase, “the bait of Satan.” Bait like a bait you use to catch fish or an animal. What a weird phrase I thought to myself. It didn’t seem to be a phrase that I would imagine myself and I had no idea where I had heard it or what it meant. That morning I drove down to Black Mountain, North Carolina for my retreat with PRMI. It was about a six hour drive. And as I was driving I remembered something. To help prepare for my sermons I have a community membership at Regent University Library. I can check out five books at a time. I generally check out books based off the theme I am preaching on. I don’t read all the books. I will skim them to get ideas. I will often check out a book and not read it. I find some books to be helpful and others not so much. Driving down to North Carolina I remembered that I had checked out a book from Regent Library entitled, “The Bait of Satan,” several months before. I was preaching on forgiveness at the time so I randomly selected some books on forgiveness, one of which was The Bait of Satan. But I didn’t read The Bait of Satan, because I thought it was a silly and scandalous title. That is right I was literally judging a book by its cover. The dream didn’t tell me to read the book directly. But I surmised that perhaps the Lord wanted me to read the book. So I downloaded it on my kindle and read it during my retreat in North Carolina. I was surprised to find that though the title of the book turned me off, it was actually a very well researched, scholarly, and practical book.
The Bait of Satan: Living Free of the Deadly Trap of Offense, was written about twenty years ago by a pastor named John Bevere. It is basically about how the sin of offense creates a negative feedback loop of hurt and disrespect that destroys our personal relationships, and I would argue destroys society in general. Bevere opens his book by saying this, “ The possibilities for offense are as endless as the list of relationships, no matter how complex or simple. This truth remains: Only those you care about can hurt you. You expect more from them after all, you’ve given more of yourself to them. The higher the expectations, the greater the fall.” (Bevere, pg 5). Bevere points out that the Greek word for “offend” comes from the word skand-alon. To quote Bevere, “ This word originally referred to the part of the trap to which the bait was attached. Hence the word signifies laying a trap in someone’s way. In the New Testament it often describes an entrapment used by the enemy. Offense is a tool of the devil to bring people into captivity.”( Bevere, 272). And as I preached about before, my retreat showed me I was in a prison of offense, a prison of unforgiveness. And the Lord opened the door and I am still coming out of my cage. It is a process to come out of our cages.
And I realized that directly after the conversion of Lydia the Devil literally tries to bait Paul and Silas. Following the conversion of Lydia, Paul and Silas were literally baited by Satan. We learn after Lydia’s conversion that they were once again going to the place of prayer when they met a slave girl who had a demonic spirit of predicting the future who made much money for her masters. She followed Paul and his missionary group crying out, “ These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Luke tells us that this slave girl did this for many days. While what the Girl said was true Luke tells the story in a way to imply that the Girl was trying to stir up a reaction, she was trying to stir up a scandal. Luke tells us, “Paul having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “ I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” Luke records the Spirit came out that very hour, setting the slave girl free from her oppression. But this deliverance also eliminated the girl’s abilities in fortune telling which was not good economically for her masters.
The slave owners drag Paul and Silas into the town square to be tried by the magistrates. The slavers accuse the missionaries of violating Jewish and Roman Law. In responses the magistrates strip the disciples of their clothing and beat them rods. Then the magistrates throw them into prison and tell the jailer to keep them safely.
Now in our own disagreements most of us haven’t been beaten by rods. And in our disagreements we need to treat each other with love and respect because that is what the Lord requires of us. But Paul and Silas in their disagreement with the magistrates were not offended. We find them in prison singing hymns and praising God. And if Paul and Silas can do that when they had just been beaten with rods perhaps we can do that in our disagreements in our relationships.
Finally, there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. Immediately all the prison doors were opened and everyone’s chains fell off. Certainly, at this point Paul and Silas would have been justified in high tailing it out of there but they stay put. When the jailer awoke and found the doors opened, he raised his sword to kill himself, because he knew if he did not kill himself, his bosses would kill him for letting the prisoners escape. But Paul cried out, “ Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer ran into their cell. And Paul told him about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The jailer was so happy about this news of salvation that he invited Paul and Silas into his home for dinner. Then the jailer had his entire family were baptized. Paul began his journey into Macedonia because of a vision where a man cried out for help. And he didn’t know how he was going to find that man. Even with Paul’s imperfect knowledge, even in controversy and disagreement, God worked out his perfect purposes for Paul and the church at Philippi. And Paul’s part of it was not to focus on the imperfections of people, which are always there, but to focus on the perfect will of God. And sometimes that means God will get our attention. But mostly, as Paul says in Romans 12:1-12 it involves being a living sacrifice. Mostly it involves how we treat one another.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen .