Topical Scripture: Acts 16:6-15
Days like yesterday don’t come along very often. In fact, it has been 365,250 days since the world last stepped into a new millennium. And a few things have changed since then.
Restaurants now have entire dining rooms for cell-phone users. The military has developed miniature robots, and will be modifying them for commercial use soon. A car connected to the Internet will be available this year, as will wristwatches which check e-mail verbally and work as cell phones. Soon cars will be able to guide themselves with radar-aided satellite cruise controls.
And in the next few years everything we own will be connected through the Internet. Clothes will monitor our health and report problems to our doctor electronically; appliances will monitor themselves and report repair problems before they occur; refrigerators will order food to be delivered; scanners will measure our bodies and order our clothing; we will touch the television screen and order the clothing the actor is wearing. Entire college degrees will be earned from our homes.
But while the future fascinates us, it frightens us as well.
Seattle cancelled its Millennium celebration due to terrorist threats. Security has been heightened the world over.
Millions of people stockpiled food and money for the Y2K problem.
A new word has been coined: “atmosfear.” This is the fear and uncertainty of everything around us—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, fear of hospitals and viruses, fear of banks, the government, everything.
What about the future most worries you this morning? Your children? The society they’re growing up in? Your finances and job? Health? Marriage? Significance and purpose for your life?
How does God want us to face such an uncertain future? His word will help us, no matter what our fears might be.
A trip into the future
Paul’s future was in Macedonia. And he had no clue. Here’s how he found his future.
He is traveling through Phrygia and Galatia, because the Spirit would not let him preach in Asia. On a map of modern-day Turkey, this region would be in the center, where the capital city Ankara is today. I’ve been through the area, and was fascinated by it. A very ancient culture, dating back for thousands of years—in fact, I picked up a piece of clay pot which was dated at 3,000 BC. Ruins today, everywhere you look, waiting to be excavated.
This is where Paul had built churches during his first missionary journey. But now, for reasons completely unclear to him at the time, the Spirit will not allow him to continue his ministry here.
So they travel to Mysia, to the northwest, and try to go to Bithynia, further to the north, but “the Spirit of Jesus” (the only time this phrase is found in the New Testament) would not allow them to. Later, other Christians would plant churches in these areas. But not Paul.
Thus they arrive at Troas, a port city on the western coast of ancient Asia, modern-day Turkey. And here the future became the present.
For here, Paul heard the seven words which literally changed the world: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” This was modern-day Greece, Europe, the West. Paul had never been here. So far as we know, no Christian had. He had no contacts, no place to start, and no plans to make this his future.
If he had turned back to the East, perhaps the gospel would never have come to Europe and the Chinese would be evangelizing us instead of the other way around. Some historians believe that the whole course of Western civilization and culture turned on this vision, this extraordinary and breathtakingly courageous decision by Paul to go to Macedonia.
Now Paul and Luke (note the “we” passages here), with the rest of their group, sail to the island of Samothrace, and on to the port of Neapolis (the modern city of Kavalla).
Then they hike ten miles along one of the most famous roads in history, the Via Ignatia, arriving at Philippi, “the leading city of Macedonia.” This road still exists today—I’ve seen the ruts in the marble made by Roman chariots.
Philippi had been so named by Philip of Macedon, for himself. It was a strategic military outpost, and the site of one of the most famous battles in history. Here Octavius and Marc Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius and Octavius became Augustus, the Roman Emperor.
The city was a “colony,” meaning that it was a little Rome. The people spoke the Roman language, ate Roman food, wore Roman clothes; most were retired Roman soldiers and their families.
Paul could not have chosen a more strategic first place for the gospel in Europe.
But their church begins in a most unusual and memorable way.
They go outside of town to the Zygaktis river, where they meet some women gathered to pray. Not at a synagogue, or with the leading men of the city, as in other places—this church begins by a river, with the women.
I’ve been to the river, and can tell you it’s a beautiful place to begin the first church in the West. Perhaps five to ten feet across, two or three feet deep at this spot, shaded by trees and foliage. The Greek Orthodox church maintains a concrete baptistry and church there today.
Here Lydia becomes the first European convert to Jesus.
She was apparently a Macedonia agent for a Thyatira clothing manufacturer, specializing in purple clothing. This was the most expensive clothing of the day, made from the glands of the murex shellfish (8,000 made one gram of dye) or the roots of the madder plant. Only kings and the wealthiest people wore this. So Lydia would know the chief influencers in the entire city. Small wonder that God led Paul to her, by this river, in this way.
She had already been worshipping God, seeking him. Never underestimate what God is already doing in the people you know—fully three-fourths of unchurched Americans say they would go to church if brought by a friend.
Paul tells Lydia the gospel, and God opens her heart. This is how the ministry partnership works—we do what we can, and God does what only he can do. We are responsible for telling the truth; God alone can save the soul.
And here, by this river, the first convert helps plant the first church. She is baptized publicly, then invites Paul, Luke, Silas, and their companions to her home. From this base Paul will heal a demon-possessed girl, and lead the jailer to Christ after God miraculously shatters his prison bars. To this church he would later write my favorite letter of the New Testament, Philippians.
All starting at the side of a river Paul had no idea he would ever see. Now, will God lead us as God led him? If so, how? What would Paul say to us about our future today?
How God leads us
Let God have your future.
The first principle Paul would articulate to us is very simple, and very profound: let God have your future. You may think you’re supposed to go to Phrygia and Galatia when you’re supposed to go to Philippi. Not one of us knows our future, or what’s best for us. If we close God in, limit his will, decide for him what’s best, we will miss his best. I like the saying, “God always gives the best to those who leave the choice with him.”
I was sure we were not supposed to move to Dallas. We loved Park Cities, but were not finished in Atlanta. But the day I finally let God have our future, no strings attached, was the day he spoke to my heart and to Janet’s and moved us here. This morning I am truly grateful to be by this Philippian river with you.
Does God have your future? Can he lead you anywhere he wants to?
Listen daily for his voice.
A second principle Paul would teach us: listen daily for God’s voice. God’s will is no blueprint, revealed a year in advance. Paul didn’t know until he was in Phrygia that he was to go to Mysia, and only in Mysia did he know to go to Troas, and only in Troas did he receive the call to Macedonia. Even in Philippi, he didn’t know about Lydia for several days, on the very day he led her to Christ.
God’s will is a present-tense issue. Have you recently made time for his Spirit to speak to you, to guide you? Sometimes he leads through open and closed doors, as he apparently did with Paul. Sometimes through the counsel of others, sometimes through the Scriptures, sometimes through an intuitive sense, sometimes through a very direct word, like a vision. But God will speak to us. None of us will stand before him at the judgment and plead ignorance.
There are radio waves in this room. But the radio must be on to receive them. Is your spiritual radio on? When did you last spend time listening to God?
Obey the last word you heard from God.
Finally, Paul would challenge us to obey the last word we heard from God. Keep doing what God told you to do, until he tells you to do something else. Then obey his new direction, immediately and boldly.
At the end of AD 2000, you will have successes and failures to remember, good days and bad. Your best days will be those you gave to God, the days you obeyed his will as you understood it. The martyred missionary Jim Elliott was right: he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
When we give God our future, listen daily for his voice, and obey what we hear, then God leads us into a future far greater than any we could choose for ourselves. Your best plans and highest dreams pale by comparison with his for you. And he will use make your life eternally significant, no matter what the world says about you.
Consider William Borden, heir to the family dairy fortune. He gave it all up to follow God to the mission field in China. Tragically, he died of spinal meningitis in Egypt, before ever reaching his intended destination. The world branded him a failure.
But not God. Borden left behind a scrap of paper, with the words of his life motto: “No Reserve! No Retreat! No Regrets!” And thousands of young people, inspired by his motto and his example, have followed him onto the global mission field, leading far more people to Christ than Borden could ever have reached himself.
Each year I make some phrase my motto for the year. I’ve adopted Borden’s. Will you join me?
I want to close this morning in a very different way. Not with a story or recap of the message, but by summarizing the most powerful single essay I have ever read. It is by C. S. Lewis, and it deals with the very heart of the Christian life. Listen closely—I think you’ll find it’s worth the effort.
Before we become Christians, we each take as our starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. When we become followers of Christ, we know that we shall have to give up some of these desires and interests, and add others in their place. We shall have to go to church, read our Bibles, pray, give, serve, and so on.
But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands of our religion have been met, we will still have some chance to get on with our own lives and do as we like. We are like an honest man who pays his taxes, but certainly hopes there will be money left over for him to spend as he wishes. We want to be Christians and go to heaven, but we also want to have some time left to live our own lives. Isn’t that true?
But this is not the way of Christ at all. To quote Lewis: “Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours.'”
This way is far harder, and far easier. It is so hard to hand over our entire lives to Jesus—all our time, our money, our abilities, our ambitions. Not just part of them so we can live as we like—all of them. And yet it is easier as well.
Take, as an example, two boys given a proposition in geometry to do. The lazy boy will memorize the formula because that’s easier for the moment. The other will learn the principle, even though that’s harder at the time. But when the test comes the lazy boy is working much harder over things the other boy understands and enjoys.
It’s like that here. The almost impossible thing is to hand over your whole self to Jesus. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. We are trying to remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep our personal happiness as our great aim in life, yet at the same time be good Christians. This is exactly what Jesus warned us we could not do. As he said, a thorn bush cannot produce figs. Grass cannot make wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown. My whole life must belong to God.
Lewis says that this is why the real problem of Christianity comes where we do not usually look for it: at the very moment we wake up in the morning. All our wishes and hopes for the day rush at us like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back—in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting the other larger, stronger, quieter life of Jesus come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all our natural hopes and desires—coming in out of the wind—listening to Jesus.
We can only do it for moments at first. But from these moments a new life begins to spread through our system. Now we are letting Jesus work at our souls. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain, which soaks right through.
Jesus never talked in vague, idealistic terms. When he said “Be perfect,” he meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are trying to make is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be even harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. You must be hatched or go bad.
Then Lewis concludes: “This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else” (excerpted from Mere Christianity, 166-9).
What will your egg become this year?