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a sermon based on Acts 16: (6-8); 9-15
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Remember this one? It’s made the rounds among the potluck crowd for several years: Question-why did the children of Israel wander the wilderness for forty years when the promised land was less than 50 miles from where they started out? Answer-because Moses refused to stop and ask for directions.

Thanks to John Gray’s caricature of the sexes in his Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, men have been singled out as the ones who’ll drive right past two Mobil’s, three Texaco’s and a Gulf station rather than face the humiliation that a) they’re hopelessly lost; and b) they haven’t the foggiest as to how to get to the party before it ends.

Of course, technology is on the side of those proud, but directionally-challenged drivers: global satellite positioning now guides us digitally and even verbally to our destination.

Getting clear directions-even if it requires asking directions at the gas station-can determine success or failure in reaching our destination. That’s now true even of our shopping malls. No matter where we enter them, the malls always have direction maps for us shoppers. A huge framed sign usually sits on a triplex structure right in the middle of the entrance to greet us as we enter. Our eyes automatically pan the mall-map for that little fat red arrow that indicates "You are here." That map that becomes our personal guide to get us to the store of our choice.

Our lesson for today in Acts 16 suggests that even the Church needs to get their directions straight as they do mission. John Wesley once defended his outlandish and highly suspect style of evangelism-preaching out-of-doors-with what has become his most famous mission statement: "The world is my parish." However, when you think about it, don’t we want to push for a bit more precision when it comes to mission? Taking Wesley’s words at face value is similar to saying, "The sky is my shooting gallery," and shooting up into the sky hoping a duck will fly into your gunshot. No, most of us need a little more guidance-a little more global positioning-to move us into mission. If we don’t get the directions clearly, we may end up like Helen and Gladys-evangelizing the wrong group!

Helen and Gladys just couldn’t get their directions straight. They’re walking off arm in arm for their church’s invite-a-neighbor-to-church mission. "You take a right on Summit Drive," the pastor yells after them. "You hear me, Helen and Gladys? Take a right on Summit." Well, these retired school teachers are better at giving directions than taking them. So Helen and Gladys turn left instead of right at Summit Drive and head right into the housing projects, which meant that Helen and Gladys were evangelizing the wrong neighborhood. "Wrong," of course, in the sense that a tough part of town is probably not the safest place to send two female senior citizens. Turns out, however in this story, that the wrong turn becomes the right turn as Spirit sends them to Verleen-a sort of equal opposite of the Lydia who shows up in our lesson today.

In today’s lesson from Acts 16, Paul and Silas are all revved up and ready to do another mission with the Good News. Compelled with their "Syria/Cilicia is my parish," mission statement, off they go arm in arm to share the Good News. We would think no more of their plans and simply go on to read of Paul and Silas’ Great Adventures.

Except for one thing.

Did you notice that Luke includes an intriguing editorial whisper which suggests that they needed to stop somewhere for directions?

Next Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had told them not to go into the province of Asia at that time . . .

. . . Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not let them go . . .

Of all people, Paul and Silas should know where to go and what to do. After all, they have the blessing and support of their home church. They have enormous gifts of communication, administration, healing, and a strong grasp of Scripture. What more could they need?

Directions. Guidance of a spiritual global-positioning kind. They want to be on their way, want to be in mission, but they don’t have the clarity nor specific guidance from God. Clearly, they lack specific direction. It seemed that every time they checked out of the motel and headed for a nearby town, God shut the door. "No, I don’t want you to anywhere in Asia." So then they turned 180 and headed for Bithynia. But again, they are interrupted. "Sorry, boys, not Bithynia; anywhere but Bithynia." Isn’t that frustrating. You get all ready to do something for God, and God seemingly shuts the door. The opportunity passes. A missed deadline ends the chance to serve. Poor Paul and Silas must have felt that doing mission was just as much about where not to go as where to go!

Compared with their resources-we’re on par with our earliest evangel-bearing forebears. We’ve got stunning technology available to us-PowerPoint, audio-precision equipment, top-notch websites, and lighting; we have CDs, drama, choirs of angels, and contemporary worship teams at our beck and call. We are Paul and Silas-we’re resourced and ready and willing to do mission in our post-modern world. What more could we need?

Directions. Guidance from the global-positioning Spirit.

As a church-planter, I recently met with my coach, Jim Griffith. He said, "I’ve done autopsies on fifty-four failed church plants." I wondered at the large number of failures. He told me that most of them had broken rule number 7 of his, Ten Reasons Why Church Plants Fail: they fail to act their age!" Jim explained that church planters can be so driven to become an established "church" that though they’re barely out of the womb, they immediately try to act like adults."

In other words, they don’t bother to get the directions-they just rush past the mall map and the gas stations in their haste get the building rented, the budget together, the tasked divvied out. So they never learn to have fun together, to laugh and cry together or to learn to pray for each other, or to form strong relationships or to experience the joy of worshiping informally and freely.

I wonder how many churches are at the place where Paul and Silas are at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey? They’ve got the strategy, the resources, the committees, the gifts, the plan. But not the directions from the Spirit. Is it possible that God really does have directions for us as we seek to be in mission? Is it possible that not all roads lead us to the mission that God has called us to?

Okay, so Paul and Silas need some direction before proceeding. So what happens? Well Luke tells us how God breaks their impasse:

That night Paul had a vision. He saw a man from Macedonia in northern Greece pleading with him, "Come over here and help us." So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, for we could only conclude that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.

What’s really amazing about this whole affair is that the Spirit is behind the the scenes preparing, speaking, acting, arranging, and guiding. Finally, in a fitful night’s sleep, Paul sees the heavenly mall-sign; maybe he finally pulls up to the gas station. However he gets to this place, the Spirit reveals direction through a human need crying out for help.

That’s all the mission team needed to go on-some indication from God of where they were supposed to go. So now they move from a potential of 360 degrees to a single degree-Macedonia. And from there they travel to the main city of Philippi.

Maybe they had hoped for more adventure, more people to preach to, more intense energy that came from heated debates over the Scripture. Instead they end up at river’s edge a mile to the west of Philippi. In a male-dominated world, they end up with not a single man to speak to. Yet, the Spirit has orchestrated this event.

A wealthy merchant named, Lydia happens to number among the crowd that gather for prayer the day that Paul and Silas show up. She’s successful, enterprising, influential. And of all the people in Macedonia, Lydia will become the first Christian, and by implication will found the first Christian church in Macedonia. The mission begins-not with raving numbers of converts but-with a single person that the Spirit has arranged to listen to Paul. Could all of this blockage-"don’t go here, don’t go there"-have been for the purpose to end up at river’s edge to share the Good News of the Kingdom with Lydia?

Luke seems to think so. He lets us know that the Spirit has all along been preparing Lydia to hear the Good News and become the future leader of the Church in Philippi: "the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying"(v. 14). In the end, the church at Philippi will be birthed-another church plant-but through Lydia and others whom God had planned through an extraordinary series of events. So we learn that the God who sends us into mission also prepares people to be receptive to the Good News.

Have you considered how the Spirit is already at work behind the scenes in your own congregation and in your own life as you think about mission? As Quaker educator Douglas Steere points out, "before we begin to pray, we may know that the love of the One who is actively concerned in awakening each life to its true center is already lapping at the shores of that life. We do not do it at all."

We just need to wait for the directions. We just have to be discerning and good listeners as we do mission. When we are partnering with God, listening carefully for any directions that the Spirit might give us, we may not see more spectacular results, perhaps, but we will see God working through us. Lapping at the shores of that life.

May God the Great Jehovah guide us as God has done with our forebears. May we sense the perfect timing, the direction, and the Spirit’s work preparing those to whom God will send us. Amen.