We are in the midst of our worship series for the New Year, Recalculating. The New Year is a traditional time for people to review what they did last year and chart a course for the future. It’s a time for revising and recalculating our route, like when our GPS is updating with new information. It may take us in a very different direction than we originally thought. What role does God play in that recalculating? What role do we invite God to play, and what role does God play whether we invite him to or not? It could be a simple course correction. It could be a detour that God wants or needs us to make to prepare us for something in the future. It could be leading us to a destination we never expected … one that was never a part of our plan.
This week we are looking at one of the times when the Apostle Paul was having his route recalculated. We are about in the middle of the book of Acts, and Paul is coming out of a very challenging episode. Paul and his preaching partner Barnabas had a successful trip to Jerusalem where they received confirmation from the Apostles that Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism in order to be considered followers of Jesus and whole members of the church. They were not obligated to follow the Law. Some time after they returned to Antioch, they decided that they would go back to the places they had preached before to see how people were doing. But, there was a major fight. Barnabas planned to bring John Mark with them, but Paul was dead set against it. In the middle of their previous journey John Mark left the group and returned home. Paul didn’t trust that John Mark was up to the requirements that another missionary journey would entail. This broke up the partnership of Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, and the fire breathing Paul.
Barnabas then left for Cyprus along with John Mark, and Silas joined Paul on his trip to visiting the places he’s been to strengthen the churches there. He also passed along the reassurances of the Apostles in Jerusalem that their preaching was correct. Along the way, the young man, Timothy, joined their company, and they continued on their journey.
This is where today’s Scripture picks up. After all this success, we might detect that God may be doing some recalculating.
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Anybody get lost in that list of towns, and confused that the group was kept from preaching the word in Asia? I thought that Paul was already in Asia? I thought that the whole Middle East was in Asia. Anybody find that confusing, or was that just me? Those kinds of things in a text can keep us from noticing what is important.
Let’s look at that head on by taking a look at the map. You will see that Asia is labeled on the eastern edge of the land mass that is modern day Turkey, so it was not referring to whole continent that dominates the eastern 2/3 of the Eastern Hemisphere. It is talking about a province in Turkey that includes the Mediterranean coast. They had been headed that direction, so they stayed in this region of Phrygia and Galatia, hoping to go into Mysia and Bithynia to the north, where a lot of Jewish people had settled, but God prevented them from going there too.
You should know that this was no afternoon stroll either. The distance was well over 200 miles. This could take 2-3 weeks. That was a long time on the road just to find out that this wasn’t the place God wanted you either. Just for some perspective, the distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem is about 65 miles. They’re walking, walking, walking for what? Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been? Would you think it strange if you were going along doing the Lord’s work, to the best of your knowledge, with success after success to have it suddenly stop and feel like you are wandering around the desert?
Wandering around the desert … that seems so familiar to me. Why? Moses and the Israelites wandered around the desert, a different desert. Only that did it for 40 years. There was a lot of recalculating going on there as they moved from place to place. They would eventually make it to the Promised Land, but that trip was less about the destination than what was going on during the journey. If God only wanted to get them to the Promised Land, they would have been done in about two weeks. It fact they did arrive to the outskirts of it, but the recon group that they sent in to check it out came back with a report that made them afraid. So, God took them the long way around, until they were formed into a people, the Israelites, and ready to trust God.
Could something similar have been happening with Paul and his companions? For one, it gave Paul a chance to reflect and perhaps repent about what had happened with Barnabas. He had been working with Barnabas for three years. Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, was the one who took Paul under his wing to teach him and to speak up for him before the other Apostles who, quite naturally, did not trust him and were afraid of him. After all, before he had been working with the Jewish authorities to persecute and arrest followers of Jesus. They thought he was the enemy. It was Barnabas that convinced them that Paul had truly accepted, Christ, repented and changed.
One thing had not changed. Paul was passionate about his opinions and what he thought was the right course of action. Before he believed in Jesus, he was passionate about arresting followers. After, he was passionate about sharing the Gospel, but if his passionate opinions could chase away the Son of Encouragement, maybe he needed to do some recalculating and get his temper under control. You can see this change in his letters, as he instructed the churches and even individuals to show compassion among each other, be unified, to be careful about their anger, to be willing to give way to another for the sake of the gospel.
This time of traveling was also a chance for the group to bond together. It must have been very challenging and frustrating trying to go to these different areas, just to be refused entry. We don’t hear why or how they were prevented from going to these areas. It is enough to know that each time they made a plan to go to a particular area, it did not work out. Think about the uncertainty that could be creeping into their thoughts. You keep going from place to place, and each time it is closed off. You might start asking yourself, “Does God really want us on this missionary journey?” “Is this the right team?” “Is this the right time?” Yet, with every obstacle there is an opportunity for them to get to know each other better and become closer due to this shared experience.
The other interesting thing is that they obeyed God’s leading. It can be easy to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit when you see a clearly defined path. The steps are easy to see. It is a lot harder when you don’t know why; you can’t see the reason. I know hard it is for me when I really want to do something. I think it is a good thing, helpful, Christ-like and everything, but it doesn’t seem to be lining up. I want to push through it. I want to make it happen through my own determination. You know what happens when I do that? Failure. Have you ever done that? Forced it when it didn’t seem to be working?
The important thing is to look for how God is leading. We can’t follow the guidance if we’re not listening for it. Then, do it. So when, they heard God telling them not to go into a particular place, they obeyed. Then, finally, they get their direction from God. Paul hears this plea for them to go to Macedonia. You can see on the map that thin band of water between Troas and the European continent is not very far, but it might as well have been a world away from what Paul and his group had originally planned. When, they got the word … and they all agreed … again, they obeyed immediately, at once. Just think, if they had stopped in any of those other along the way, they would not have been in Troas to make the crossing right away. You can see all of the places that Paul visited or started churches just from his letters: Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus.
What does this tell us? While Paul and his companions were making choices, God was really the travel agent here. It shows that God is in charge and orchestrating everything to ensure that God’s plan for spreading the gospel is successful. However, it also shows the concern that God has for people desperate for the good news of his grace. The team was in place and ready to go. He made sure that his apostles, his teachers, his heralds were in the right place and the right time. During the travel, he is allowing his team to grow spiritually, so that they are prepared to face the challenges that they will find in Greece.
My original intention today was to talk about the recalculating that God did in Martin Luther King’s life. He was one who had to trust the Lord’s leading in his life. He said, “The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. He is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. The ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.” He was by no means a perfect person. None of us are, but he decided that he wanted to become a pastor because he wanted to pattern his life after the teachings of Jesus. His plan was to pastor a church. We can see how God recalculated his destination even as he was obtaining his education. He became a social reformer whose method was directly inspired by Jesus. He knew that ultimately we need to trust God. All of that about Dr. King is true, and this Sunday would be a great time to talk about it in greater depth, but then, this week there was a fire at the Joseph Charter School.
In the aftermath of the fire and the destruction of the school gym, we can see that there will be some recalculating in how everyone moves forward. First, and foremost as we prayed earlier, we can thank God that the fire was detected early enough that everyone could be evacuated safely. But, we can see how this event is already meshing quite naturally with what happened with Paul, Silas, and Timothy. The recalculating has already begun, but there will be some time for reflection and thought about the best way to move forward. The investigation has already begun as to what caused the fire and what caused the damage to be so extensive so quickly despite the quick response of students, faculty, staff, fire fighters, and law enforcement.
School will be closed this week as staff and teachers chart a course trying to do what is best for the children and for the school. Meanwhile, the community is already being knit closer together, not only the students of Joseph Charter School and their families but other schools in the area generously offering to help in so many ways. This is building bonds of community despite being athletic competitors. Then, there is an opportunity for something new. We don’t know what that is at the moment. Despite this scary time that the school is going through, the end result could be something that is far greater than what was there before.
That can be the way it is with God’s plans, frustrating, perplexing, and sometimes scary. There’s a picture that I see from time to time. I have saved it because it is so true on this exciting adventure we are on with God. Have you ever been to an amusement park with one of those crazy rollercoasters? Even if you haven’t been on one, maybe you have seen one from a far or on TV or something. In some parks, when you are careening down one of the steep hills, they’ll take your picture. At the end of the ride, they offer it to you as a keepsake to remember your thrilling experience. There is this one picture where there are two people in the car, a teenager who is holding the hand of the other passenger, a little boy who is probably at the lower age limit for who can ride. The teenager is having a great time, huge grin on her face. The child has this terrified grimace on his face as all his hair is blow straight up, looking like every hair is on end, gripping onto the safety bar. The teenager is labeled “Holy Spirit”.” The child is labeled “You.” The caption reads, “God says, ‘I have a plan for your life.’
What it feels like: …” Sometimes it feels … well, terrifying, but you have to go with it, and know that you are secure in your seat with the safety bar across your lap. No matter what, God is with you and holding your hand the whole way. Even if it feels like God is recalculating our route, God always knows our destination.