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Sunday, July 29, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
When God Presents Roadblocks
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
God asks us to jump from our secure perches,
to stop calculating the risks.
Jesus bids us, “Take up your cross and follow me. . . .
Don’t insist on knowing exactly what comes next.
But trust that you are in the hand of God,
who will guide your life.”
Henri Nouwen, Turn Mourning into Dancing
This past June I spent a week of my study leave time on Cape Cod in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. One morning I decided to go to the Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s a beautiful place with five miles of trails that wind through a huge variety of environments—little secluded ponds, forest surrounded trails, and big open areas. The woman at the welcome center told me that if I wanted to walk to the ocean, I should be aware of high tide and shouldn’t be out there when high tide was expected. I was interested, because the tide is so dramatic in that particular area. There was an immense difference in high tide and low tide: a huge expanse of land that was affected by the tides. Not just beach area, but a grassy, prairie-like, muddy area too. I looked at the time, knew I could get there, and so I set out.
After about fifteen minutes I came to a place where there was a little wooden passageway—only about four feet long—covering a very wet area. The problem was that the wooden passageway was small, and the puddle extended several feet all around it, so you couldn’t really even get to it without sinking in a lot of mucky water. The area beyond the water was long wet grass and mud and muck. At that point in my walk, I wasn’t even close to the ocean but could look ahead—probably a mile ahead—and see another very long boardwalk that would get me to the ocean, but it was far away and the ocean was farther yet.
I had met an impasse. A couple in front of me had arrived right before I had. I heard her say, “If only we had our boots” and “It wasn’t like this last year.” He kept commenting, with a very serious look on his face, that “the tide was about to come in” as if to say “we’d better not chance it.” We had come to a roadblock.
A roadblock was what had presented itself to Paul and Silas and Timothy. For whatever reason, they were stopped from going where they thought they wanted to go and what they had wanted to accomplish. Up until now their method had been to revisit the fledgling churches that had already been started. It seemed like the right thing to do. But now the Holy Spirit blocked them. They tried more than once—passing by Mysia they tried to go back into Bithynia, both places in Asia—but the Spirit of Jesus didn’t allow them. Their journey was stalled out. It was a roadblock.
You know what those are like. You know what it’s like to be stalled out, to keep hitting brick walls. Sometimes it’s simply a feeling of malaise: no passion for your work or your life. Or a relationship that just won’t get to the next level of commitment. Rejection after rejection in a job search. A health diagnosis that messes with your future. Difficulty getting pregnant. Maybe the helplessness you feel when listening to the evening news. A psychological demon you’ve dealt with for years that has reared its head again. You know what roadblocks are like. It’s hard to know whether to keep pursuing the same course or to let the roadblock win and to change course.
What it seems that Paul was able to do was to listen to the no’s, to listen to the roadblocks, to discern what they meant, to figure out when to keep trying and when to let go and when finally to go in another direction.
They finally gave up and went down to Troas, and it was there that Paul had this preposterous vision. It’s not really clear whether it was actually a dream or just a vision. Maybe it was intuition that kept nagging at him. Or a thought that wouldn’t let him go. Those are ways God also uses to give us vision. In Paul’s vision, he saw a man from Macedonia pleading with him to come there—to come to Macedonia, to help the people there. And it was preposterous, because Macedonia was across the water in a completely different continent, and none of them had planned to go there.
What fuels people to keep going, to be faithful, despite the significant roadblocks we run into? We all so love control and the ability to make our own choices and chart our own courses. It’s pretty easy to choose to keep banging our heads against the wall, determined to achieve the goal we’ve set for ourselves, or, worse to just completely lose hope after so much struggle.
What gives people the courage to trust their unknown futures, to trust a change in course, to discern that a roadblock thrown in front of them might mean that God wants them to do something else, to go a different way?
What Paul knew was that he and the others had a purpose and that the overall purpose in their lives was one set before them by God. That’s what fueled Paul. That’s what prevented him from losing hope.
One of the most significant realizations in any one of our spiritual journeys is to realize and accept that each of us has some sort of God-given purpose, that our lives are valued by a God who has created us and loves us and depends on us. Mary Oliver’s poem asks “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver).
So I think that what gives us the fuel, the hope, to keep going, to listen to the roadblocks that threaten to stop us, to let them speak to us, is knowing, or realizing in an aha moment, or accepting that God has given each one of us, you and me, a purpose. That’s what gives us the courage to go forward, even when the way isn’t clear and the path isn’t marked.
The Westminster Shorter Cathechism, one of our confessions, written in the late 1600s, asks “What is the chief end of man?” I’ll change it so that the question includes women. “What is the chief end or goal of human beings, of both men and women?” The answer in the catechism says it this way” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” “The chief goal of men and women is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”
Knowing that, accepting that, trying to figure out how to do that, how to glorify God in our own lives and enjoy God forever—that’s what gives us the fuel to listen to the roadblocks, to know when to change course, to trust our unknown futures to a known God, to not let the roadblocks overwhelm us.
Jimmy Carter met a huge roadblock when he didn’t win his second term as president. He is such a clear example of someone who knows that his purpose, above all else, is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. He continued teaching Sunday School and physically built houses, and his foundation keeps battling to eradicate the guinea worm disease in South Sudan. It’s pretty hard to live up to an example such as that, but there are other more everyday examples too. One of my former pastors shared a story of a particular doorman at a particular high-rise. I can’t remember his name, but he greeted every single person who came in and came out of that building with a greeting of joy and welcome and love. When asked about it, it became clear that he had chosen to do his very ordinary job with a higher purpose: to glorify God and enjoy God forever by honoring and welcoming every person that passed him.
Once Paul and the others got over to Philippi, there were some empty days with little confirmation that their path would be fruitful. Philippi was a Roman colony, a place where a lot of army officers retired, a fairly wealthy town with few Jews. It would have been the Jewish synagogue that Paul and his companions would have chosen to go to first to proclaim the good news, but none existed in Philippi. Somehow they had heard that there was this group of women who gathered every sabbath day to pray by the water’s edge. So think about it. The Holy Spirit had already led Paul to cross one boundary, from one continent to another, but here he is crossing another boundary too: sitting down with a group of women when he normally engaged with the men at the synagogue. At one time in history an anonymous rabbi was quoted as saying, “It is better that the words of the law be burned than be delivered to a woman.” And here Paul sits down with the women and proclaims the good news. A spirit revolution. Roadblocks met. Boundaries crossed. Fueled by a purpose beyond all others. Proclaiming the good news about a messiah who wasn’t anything like the messiah that had been expected, a messiah who stooped down to look in the eyes of a child, who risked everything to speak to the poor, who wanted so badly that we would know how much God loves us.
All of this—trying to figure out our God-given purpose, wondering how to glorify God and enjoy God forever—is no easy task. It’s a life-long task, and there are some pretty dark, unspecified times when roadblocks show up. So hanging in there is at times very hard. That’s what I think Lydia teaches us. She was a Gentile worshiper of God, not a Jew, but she had attached herself to a little worshiping Jewish community. Likely a widow, she had been successful selling purple cloth, a product only affordable to the wealthy. Yet she was seeking God. There was a yearning inside of her for something deep and meaningful.
There is a photographer DeWitt Jones, once a National Geographic photographer, who teaches leadership through metaphors that come from his photography work. One of his points about leadership is “Put Yourself in the Place of Greatest Potential.” That’s what Lydia did. She put herself in a position of greatest potential for finding the God she was seeking. She attached herself to a worshiping community, and then the Holy Spirit pulled off another surprise. Her heart was opened and she could hear what Paul was saying: the good news of this Jesus, fully human and fully God, who loved her. Her heart was changed. She’d put herself in the place of greatest potential.
This last week I had the pleasure of attending our Chicago Lights Summer Dance Intensive Showcase. The dancers—all ages, all abilities, were wonderful and obviously so happy to perform and show their parents and the rest of us the results of their hard work. I sat in the back and could see all the parents in front of me. During one of the dances I was so moved—not because I was watching the dancers but because I noticed the parents—standing in the back, with their phones, focused on their kids, videotaping their pride and joy dancing across the stage. The scene moved me because all of those parents so focused on catching what their children were doing gave me a vision of how God focuses on us, delighting in us, capturing our best moments. We are God’s pride and joy, despite all of our struggles, despite the times we can’t listen or don’t listen. Despite our discouragement over the roadblocks that threaten to overwhelm us. Knowing that, knowing that we are God’s pride and joy, is what moves us to glorify God and enjoy God forever. There’s no purpose like it. Amen.