One day in the middle of April about 14 years ago. I was tired. I was very uncomfortable. My feet were sore and swollen; in fact I had not worn real shoes in over two months, and was forced to either wear my Tevas for a pair of flip flops everywhere I went. I am sure those of you who have known me for years will find this hard to believe, but I at this particular time in my life I would preach in flip-flops. I had been to the hospital, oh, I don’t know, 5 times already and had been sent home each and every time. So I was well beyond being the “the girl who cried wolf.” To top it all off I was feeling this way 8 days longer than I had expected, because I was naive and thought “due dates” actually meant something.
I had been tired of this whole grand adventure 6-8 weeks earlier. These final 8 days had seemed simply and absolutely unbearable. I woke up that morning, just like every morning an uncountable number of days, feeling worse than I had on any day previously. I knew that if things did not move forward by tomorrow I would be “evaluated” and a plan would be put in place, but having to endure one more day seemed nearly unthinkable.
Everything I did that morning seemed unthinkable. I remember stopping at one point in the day and catching myself on a door jamb and thinking I can not move. I am just going to sit down right here and not move until I am done with this. Later that morning I was on the phone with my mother and making Mike an early lunch before he headed off to class and I snapped his head off for apparently no reason (it was at this point when my mother began to wonder if today would be the day, but my mother did not say anything to me at the time).
After Mike headed off to class I layed down on the couch and became instantly aware of exactly how uncomfortable I had become. But being a woman who had been to the hospital too many times, I ignored it and tried to take a nap. Around 2 I decided that perhaps this was serious and called my husband who by that time was so intimately aware of what it meant when Kaza thought that “this is it,” that he finished teaching class and promptly showed up at the house at 3:30, finding me there obviously in labor and apologized for waiting. We still were not sure if we should risk going into the hospital only to be sent home again and waited until about 5 to call my Dr and ask what we should do. She told us to hold off a little longer. At this time we decided to watch a movie someone had lent us. I don’t remember much about that movie. Sometime after the movie was over I can remember looking over at Mike, absolutely exasperated and asking, “What exactly are we waiting for?” To which he responded, “I think we are waiting for that.”
We loaded ourselves up in the car and started on the 20 min ride to the hospital. I had never thought that 20 minutes was too far to be from the hospital, but let me tell you when you are in full labor, and seat-belted into a vehicle the thing can not move fast enough to make even a short trip to hospital bearable. I was checked into the hospital, and ready to go by about 8:30pm. I remember at about 10:30 or 11:00 I thought, I am really going to have this baby today! And the fact of the matter is I was only slightly off. Most first labors are slow ordeals because this is the first time your body has done this, so I did not actually have Cidra on the 25th of April in fact she was born at 12:56 am on April 26th.
One of the things I never knew before I had children was that mothers swap these stories in varying degrees of detail countless times over the course of their lives. Mothers love to tell people the stories of how their children came into this world. And the glory of it is no two stories are the same, every mother has stories about how their children came to be a part of their family. It is something all mothers have in common but each story is unique. Sharing these stories brings us joy and fills our hearts with the inexpressible feelings we had the first time we held that wonderful little miracle of God in our arms.
As I read over this story in the book of Acts this week, I could not help but think that this is yet another birth story. Acts is full of birth stories. Through the account of Peter and Cornelius and the sending of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey we have traced the steps that lead to the birth of the Gentile Church and here with Lydia we find the birth of the Church at Philippi. This is the birth story for one of Paul’s first, most beloved, and most supportive churches. And it begins with the story of Lydia, well like most birth stories it begins a little before that.
Last week we looked at the passage where Peter explained his actions at Cornelius’s house to the council at Jerusalem. Quite a lot has happened since the Jerusalem council decided to heed the message God gave to Peter, concerning the salvation of the Gentiles. At this point in early church history, Paul has already finished his First missionary journey.” Things had gone so well on that journey that the “Gentile issue” had once again been brought before the council of Jerusalem this time the question was not whether they can be saved or filled with the Spirit but whether or not non-Jewish converts are required to live by the laws God gave to the Jews through Moses. The issue was greatly debated and after a most excellent speech given by Paul concerning salvation by grace, convincing the entirety of the church that “looking like a Jew” was not something they should expect of gentile the believers. The church sent Paul and Silas and several others with a letter to the gentile churches to let them know of their decision. It is with this letter in hand which Paul sets out on what is often called Paul’s second missionary journey.
Paul delivered his letter to the believers in Antioch and the people there rejoiced at the church’s decision. From there Paul headed to Asia Minor, but all along the way his path seemed to be “blocked.” It is at this point, Paul has the vision described in this text. Paul has been trying to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Asia, but in this dream in which he sees a man from Macedonia, which is basically in the opposite direction of which he has been going. This man pleads with Paul asking for Paul to help “us.” Immediately Paul abandons his journey through Asia Minor and heads to Macedonia.
Those of us who so happen to be of European descent, we like to make a big deal out of this change of course for Paul. God’s call for Paul to go to Macedonia is almost as important to Christians of European decent and our Christianity, as God’s call to Peter to accept the Gentile believers. This is because this marks a change in the movement of the Gospel from going primarily to Mediterranean, locals into what is now modern day Europe. People, like me, who can trace their ancestry from European peoples, find it very exciting that God called Paul to bring the truth of Jesus Christ to our ancestors’ way back in the first century of the Church. And in truth it probably is an important move historically which ultimately brought the Gospel to our fair shores here in the USA.
But I am not sure it is any more exciting than Philip taking the gospel to Ethiopia and converting that entire country. Or Thomas taking the long trek to India and bringing the gospel to the peoples of that land. In reality it is just another step in fulfilling the call God placed upon all believers to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. The fact of the matter is through Paul, through Thomas, through Philip and through many others the tight circle of believers who originated in Jerusalem was ever expanding throughout the first century.
Paul is trying to do one thing. Paul is trying to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ in one direction but it is simply not working. And it is at this point that God gives Paul a vision. A vision of a man from Macedonia, and so at this man’s request Paul sets out to Macedonia. He gets to Macedonia and came to the city of Philippi, you know Philippi, many of us have read Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, more commonly known as the book of Philippians.
Paul gets to Philippi and because it is a Roman city there is no easily found synagogue, so he wanders outside of the city gates and finds a place of prayer. There is a group of women who have gathered there. He approaches the group and begins to speak to them. The scriptures do not tell us what Paul and his companions say to these women, but what they had to say must have struck a cord with at least one them. One of these women, named Lydia, is a God fearer. That is to say she was a proselytite, a person who was not Jewish by birth but believed in and worshipped God. She listened eagerly to what Paul had to say and was soon his first convert in Macedonia, making this woman the first person to become a part of the church which would eventually form there in Philippi. Paul goes toward Philippi looking for a Macedonian man and instead finds a woman.
Not only was Lydia Paul’s first convert in Philippi but she would become the missionary’s benefactor giving him a place to live and a base of operations as he continued to work in her town and found the church which would soon arise there.
Paul was trying to go to Asia and instead God called him to go to Macedonia. God sent Paul a vision in which Paul was called to Macedonia by a man begging for his help. When Paul arrived he did not find this man, instead he found a group of women and it is out of this group of women where Paul finds his first convert.
What amazes me is that not once does Paul skip a beat. He tries and tries to go to Asia and bring the good news of the gospel there and he is thwarted at every turn and then God says, "You know that is not really where I want you to go. I want you to go to Macedonia instead. And Paul is like, “Ok, I’ll go to Macedonia.” God gave Paul a vision of a man calling him to Macedonia, Paul arrives there and the only people he can find to speak to are a bunch of women, so he preaches to the women. Then it is a woman named Lydia, not a man, who is his first convert. In fact his first two converts are women it is not until after he is jailed and witnesses to his jailor do the scriptures tell us of a man who comes to believe because of Paul’s witness in Macedonia. Paul has one thing in mind and God keeps handing him something different. Paul is not discouraged or distraught that things are not working out they way he imagined them to work out.
So many times when we are doing the work God has called us to do, we get our own understanding of things. We have a plan. We have it all worked out in our heads, how things will work out and as life unfolds, as time goes on, things do not work out the way we imagined them to go. We know God called us to the work of the kingdom; we know our plans are good solid plans. We know these are good things to do. But things do just not seem to go “our” way.
Going to Asia was a good idea. Paul knew God called him to bring the good news to the Gentiles and Asia is just full of them, but things were just not working out there. He tried several times in several different places but it seems God was blocking his every move. And God sends him in a completely different direction.
Paul does not get upset, he does not get discouraged. He does not spout on and on about how God had pulled a fast one on him changing the plans on him at the last minute. He just shakes his head, changes direction and heads off in nearly the opposite direction he had wanted to go and goes to the place God called him to go.
Paul gets there and the people who start accepting the truth of the gospel are not the people he had envisioned. He goes to because a man has called to him across the sea, when he arrives the first and only ones he can find to hear him is a group of women and it is two women who hear and believe first. These were not the kind of believers he had come here to convert. He did not look at what he had and say, “What kind of church can I have with these people?” Paul took the converts which God brought to him and accepted them and kept on keeping on.
Too often we look at what we have. We look at what God has placed right in front of us and we become discouraged. What can I do with a widow woman who does nothing with her life save sell frivolous material and a crazy sooth-saying slave girl (who was his second convert)? What kind of church can I start with these two? Paul looked at what he had and was encouraged instead of discouraged.
Sometimes God is doing amazing things right in front of us, amazing things among us and we look at these little miracles and say to ourselves, “what good is that?” “We really are not any better now than we were before.” Instead of being encouraged that God is working in ways which we ourselves could never have envisioned, we get discouraged because things are not “going our way,” which should not at all be a problem when we are trading “our way” for “God’s way.” We had plan, a vision of how things would go and they are going a different way. Things are not going how we envisioned them to go and we get upset, we get discouraged. We downgrade God’s miracles. We don’t see the miracles and the ground work God is laying, which will help us to do amazing things in the future.
Think about the work God must have done before Paul even arrived in Macedonia, in the heart and life of this woman in order for her to already be a God-fearer and be ready to hear the good news of the Gospel. Not to mention that through her God provided someone who had the ways and means to support and take care of Paul, while he worked to start the church there in Philippi. Lydia might literally not have been who Paul envisioned when he headed to Macedonia, but she was exactly what he needed as he was beginning his ministry there. She was open; she was ready to hear the message Paul had to bring. She had the money and a large enough house to give him a place to stay and room which he could use as his base of operations.
I cannot think of the times in my life when things did not seem to be going the way I wanted them to go. I cannot list all of the times when I saw how God’s plans were laying out before me and I scratched my head trying to figure out what in the world was going on. And I have to admit, at times I got discouraged, at times I was positive the whole thing was unraveling before me. It felt to me almost as if God had taken me somewhere and was leaving me there. Giving me a little wave, saying, well I think you can handle things from here. I am sure you have got it all handled and leaving me there to figure things out on my own.
There have been times when I knew God was leading me and suddenly I saw how things were working out and was positive God had tricked me. This was not what I had bargained for; this was not the way things should be working. I have to confess to you all sometimes when I have felt this way; I was not as gracious as Paul. I whined and complained and told God just how alone and abandoned I felt. Told God how I thought that THIS was not how “we” had agreed things would go. And you know when I have reacted this way to God working out God’s will in my life and the lives of those around me, when I have been discouraged by God’s plan and how it did not line up with my plan, things did not turn out so well. Usually, I ended up not only being discouraged but also hurt and frustrated, because in the end I was working against God’s plan and not with it.
But let me also tell you that at other times I can say I have been a little bit more like Paul. I have, for some reason, been able to see the hand of God at work even when it did not seem that God was working in the ways I would have wished for God to work. And instead of being discouraged I thanked God for working in ways which I could not have even imagined and have accepted the work of God as the best and seen the glory and the grace and wonder of God’s plan. And you know, at these times, when I have accepted God’s work and accepted God’s plan absolutely wondrous, miraculous things have happened.
Paul accepted the change of plans which took him to Macedonia, Paul accepted his first unexpected converts and saw the work and the hand of God all along the way. And the church there in Philippi became one of his most faithful churches which supported him all through out his life and throughout his journeys. The church he founded there in Philippi is one to which he speaks most kindly and most encouraging because it becomes one of the stronger churches in the early church. The work there did not begin the way Paul would have wanted it to, nothing in that journey went the way he had planned but because he accepted the work and the hand of God, even when it did not make sense to him, the work which he did there in Philippi exceeded any expectations Paul could ever have had for it.
When we trust God, go where God calls for us to go, do what God calls for us to do and trust God’s work all along the way, amazing things happen. The early church is story after story of people trusting God in unexpected circumstances. And time and time again the church grows and blossoms and God is able to so amazing things through people. I know that the work God did in the early church is not limited to first century Christianity. God wants to work through us here in Cambridge as well. We might not always get the results we had hoped for. We may not always see God working in the ways we planned for God to work but WHEN we see God working we need to trust God’s work. We need to trust God’s plan and accept the work and the plan God is laying out for us. Take what God gives to us and KNOW that God’s plan is the best plan, that God’s work is the best work and KNOW that when WE go where God calls for us to go and do what God calls for us to do, God will do amazing things in us and through us to further God’s kingdom.