May 22nd – 6th Sunday of Easter – Dreams not Beans – Acts 16:9-15
In 1682 the entire village of Runswick, England, slid into the sea. It was crazy! The entire town was gone. The entire town disappeared in an instant. Here’s the strange thing. Not a single resident of Runswick, England drowned. Why? You may ask. Every single inhabitant in the small fishing village was at a funeral at the time of the collapse! That was incredibly lucky! It was an amazing coincidence! Or was it something more? I bet the villagers didn’t thank their lucky stars but thanked God almighty. As they rebuilt the village, slightly further south, perched on a set of cliffs, they must have given thanks to God. Their village slipped into the sea, but they had what matters, each other. Not a single person was lost.
Dr. Steve Land tells about a seminary student during World War II who was preparing himself to enter the war as a military chaplain. One day this student found a used book at a bookstore on the subject of “How to Speak Russian.” This student was somewhat of an introvert. He preferred to remain in his room reading rather than going out to socialize with his friends. He decided that this little book on how to speak Russian would be a nice, quiet way to spend his evenings. From then until his graduation he studied that Russian language book whenever he had a chance.
After graduation the young man was inducted into the Army as a chaplain. He was sent to Europe where his battalion was involved in heavy fighting. One night as he lay on his bedroll, staring up at the stars, he became depressed. Every day and every night he was constantly giving comfort to wounded and dying soldiers. Seminary didn’t prepare him for this. In fact, he did not feel prepared for anything he was being asked to do.
Just then, while those thoughts were troubling him, a medic came running up to him. “Chaplain,” he said, “we have a man who is seriously wounded, he is scared and panicking but we can’t understand what he is saying to us. Can you come help us?”
Upon arriving at the scene, he realized that it was a Russian soldier who had evidently gotten separated from his company. As he knelt beside the man he suddenly recognized he could understand much of what the soldier was saying. For the rest of the night he stayed by the soldier’s side, speaking words of comfort to him in broken Russian and praying with him the best he could until the man died from his wounds.
As he returned to his bedroll and lay down under the stars once again, the young chaplain felt that somehow the stars were brighter and the load he was carrying was a little lighter. He now knew that God was at work even in this awful war. This little Russian language book had fallen into his hands and God used it to comfort a dying soldier through him.
Was it lucky that he knew some Russian? Was it a crazy coincidence? Or the Holy Spirit leading and guiding? Was it something like Paul is talking about in Romans 8:26-28, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Paul was shaped by his experiences with the Holy Spirit in Acts. He couldn’t not be. He was so dependent on the Spirit for direction, comfort and giving him the encouragement he needed to keep going through shipwrecks, imprisonment, and literally for his direction. Often he would not know where he was going or why or who he would be meeting when he got there so utterly as he relied on the Holy Spirit. As you can see from our map, he traveled all over the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. The Holy Spirit for whatever reason said no to Asia and in our text today, the Holy Spirit comes to him in a dream directing him instead to Macedonia.
My New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson used to say we need to use discernment when we think the Holy Spirit is guiding and leading us to do something. It may just be the beans you had for lunch. Paul was indeed filled with the Holy Spirit and not just a really bad indigestion. When the Lord prompted him to go he went, because he trusted God to show him what to do.
9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
Lydia is found in the Bible only in two places, both of which are in Acts. When it says that she was a dealer in purple cloth that was a signal to readers that she was wealthy because purple cloth was expensive. Purple was the color of the Roman elite. The emperor, and only the emperor, would wear a toga made entirely of purple cloth. Purple dye was quite expensive. It was made from a juice found in minute quantities in shellfish. It took thousands of these small crustaceans to make a yard or two of purple cloth. Purple dye was rare and purple fabric was worth its weight in silver.
It’s important to note that Lydia was not a Jew, but she did worship God. As Lydia listened to Paul’s message, Luke tells us the Lord opened her heart to the message of Jesus. And right there on the spot, she and all the members of her household were baptized into the Christian faith. Her husband is not mentioned anywhere in the passage, but it says she and her household were baptized, which most likely would have included her children and servants. She offered hospitality in her home to Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke saying, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded them to stay. It’s interesting that in Paul’s dream that set his course on going to Macedonia was a man, but his first convert was Lydia and her entire household.
Now was it luck or mere coincidence that Lydia was there when came down to the river to pray? If we could ask Lydia, I bet she would say, “It was the Holy Spirit leading me. God led me to the exact spot at that exact moment so I could hear eagerly what the Lord Jesus had done for me so I can share it with my household and share it for the rest of my life. It has changed my life.”
Lydia was a person of faith even before she was exposed to the Gospel of Jesus. This is important. There is a tendency on the part of some religious people to divide the world into the saved and the unsaved, the righteous and the unrighteous. Surprisingly, the New Testament isn’t that narrow. In the New Testament there are Jews and there are Christians and there are people who are known as God-Fearers as Lydia is. Luke refers to Lydia simply as a worshiper of God. In modern terms, we may call her a “seeker” or someone who is “spiritual, but not religious.
There’s a man in Acts 10 who also fits the description of a God-Fearer. His name was Cornelius. Last week I preached about Cornelius without ever using his name. He was an officer in what was known as the Italian Regiment of the Roman army. Cornelius commanded a hundred men whose main job was to maintain order in Caesarea. Cornelius was not a Jew. Neither was he a Christian. Here is how Luke describes him, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”
One afternoon about three o’clock Cornelius has a vision. He sees an angel of God. This angel comes to him and says, “Cornelius!”
Whoa, Cornelius is not prepared for this. He stares at the angel and he is afraid. “What is it, Lord?” he asks timidly.
The angel says to him, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have caught God’s attention. He has a job for you. You are to send some of your men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” This is the other side of the story that I preached on last week. The Spirit of the Lord is working on all of us at the same time. Not just Peter, but Cornelius too.
When the angel had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and another devout soldier. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Remember from last week, Peter was having his famous dream of God telling Peter that nothing which God created was unclean – like lobster, shrimp, bacon and ham. It was this dream that gave Peter the awareness that it was all right for him to break bread with Gentiles. It was to Cornelius’ house that God summoned Simon Peter. This was a life-changing experience for Peter and it was a life-changing experience for the early church, and it came through this non-Jewish, not yet Christian, man named Cornelius.
In New Testament terms Cornelius was a God-Fearer. Lydia also was a God-Fearer. She was a Gentile but she was a worshiper of God. She was seeking after God. So it was no accident that she was down at the river engaged in a prayer meeting when she encountered the Apostle Paul. Lydia was hungry for God. They just had to be introduced to Jesus. Jesus brings the way, the truth, the life. Jesus sets the captives free from sin and death. Jesus brings freedom to our world. This song was posted by Katy Nicole on TikTok with a simple caption “Can I pray this song over you right now?” It’s called “In Jesus’ Name (God of Possible).”
I speak the name of Jesus over you
In your hurting, in your sorrow
I will ask my God to move
I speak the name ’cause it’s all that I can do
In desperation, I’ll seek Heaven
And pray this for you
I pray for your healing
That circumstances would change
I pray that the fear inside would flee in Jesus name
I pray that a breakthrough would happen today
I pray miracles over your life in Jesus name, in Jesus name
I speak the name of all authority
Declaring blessings, every promise
He is faithful to keep
I speak the name no grave could ever hold
He is greater, He is stronger
He’s the God of possible
Katy Nichole created her now viral song “In Jesus Name (God of Possible)” from words in her prayer journal that were written in the midst of the global health crisis and in response to her own story of suffering, hope and healing. The 21-year-old has reached well over 150 million people with the chorus to her debut single on TikTok. In an interview she shares a common thread of listeners’ reactions. “But the one thing that I see as a pattern through all these stories is that they are encountering the Lord. They are experiencing Jesus for the first time, or for another time in their life if they already knew Him. But there are a lot of people seeing Jesus. Maybe they haven’t even recognized it yet, but it’s a start and a step in the right direction, which I just think is really cool.”
The Holy Spirit is using her song and lyrics to speak to the Lydia’s and the Cornelius’ of our world. They are really great people who are seeking God. They may have been turned off by the church or what they consider to be “Christian” people. They may have even been hurt by the church, but they still hunger for God. They want Jesus. They are desperately longing for Jesus. Will you be the one to introduce them? Will you let the Holy Spirit guide you when you don’t know what to pray? Will you show a hurting world the cure for all that ails them – no other name is as sweet when we’ve hit rock bottom chasing the things of the world – we who know the name should shout it out – Jesus! We, the church of Jesus, need to actively reach out into the world. We need to encounter them where they are and share genuinely and generously what our Triune God has done in our life. If we do that, then we are loudly proclaiming, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long!”
I love a story that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross tells about a woman she encountered when she was writing her famous book on death and dying. Part of Dr. Kubler-Ross’ research involved interviewing dying patients in the hospital, trying to find out how they felt and what they thought as they faced death. As she went from room to room in the hospital, she began to notice a remarkable pattern. Sometimes she would go into a dying person’s room and the person would be calm, at peace, and tranquil. She also began to notice that often this was after the patient’s room had been cleaned by a certain hospital orderly.
One day, Dr. Kubler-Ross happened to run into this orderly in the hospital corridor. She asked, “What are you doing with my patients?”
The orderly thought she was being reprimanded by Dr. Kubler-Ross. She said, “I’m not doing anything with your patients.”
“No, no,” she responded. “It’s a good thing. After you go into their rooms, they seem at peace. What are you doing with my patients?”
“I just talk to them,” the orderly said. “You know, I’ve had two babies of my own die on my lap. But God never abandoned me. I tell them that. I tell them that they aren’t alone, that God is with them, and that they don’t have to be afraid.”
We all have stories to share of being in the right place at the right time. It’s not luck. It’s not coincidence. It’s God. If we let the Holy Spirit direct our paths like with Paul. The Holy Spirit will guide our steps and Jesus is faithful to give us the words to say. It’s simple. You just have to be open to sharing your story. It’s as simple as that.
I want to close with this prayer from Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, it’s a real oldie but a goody, “Gracious and Holy God, Give us wisdom to perceive you, intelligence to understand you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.