Acts 16:9-15 CEB
A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.
Dreams and visions cover the landscape of Acts. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles uses the word vision eleven times, more than any other book of the New Testament, even Revelation. Already in just the past few Sundays, we have had several visions serve as the core of our scripture readings from Acts. All this serves as a reminder that God does not just call us once and leave it at that, but rather, God is a constant presence, guiding, advising, and strengthening us all for the journey ahead. All of this got me thinking, how common are visions from God today? Well, how about it? How many of us gathered here today have received what they would call a vision from God? An even better question follows this one, namely, how many of us have shared this vision with other people, with our church community? A study from the mid-90s found that as many as 50% of members of the Presbyterian church would say that they had a vision, but it was uncommon for people to share what they had heard or seen. In our reading this morning, it is not actually until Paul shares his vision with his troupe that God’s guidance becomes clear, and off to Macedonia and Europe, they go! Tuning into God seems to not only mean opening our hearing to the voice of God but also discerning this voice from all the other voices that compete for our attention these days. Paul’s vision and resulting exchange with Lydia would not have happened without his giving God’s word license to live and breathe by sharing it with his companions.
Our scripture this morning gives us one snapshot of Paul’s second missionary journey in the pages of Acts, so like all snapshots, it is necessary to put it back into its place in the larger whole to fully see what is happening. Paul’s group has been trying to spread the gospel message in Asia, and they had planned to go north into the region around Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) to continue this evangelism. However, the Holy Spirit has other ideas, and Acts tells us that Paul and the others were somehow prevented from going further. Instead, that very night Paul has a dream, a vision where a Macedonian man approaches him asking for help, and while Paul has the vision, it is his companions who conclude “that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” At this point, they leave Asia behind and go into Greece, into Europe to spread the gospel message there.
There is a reminder in these lines that while we often have plans on how and where we feel God can best use us, God can have a different vision altogether. Instead of Asia, Paul and his companions go to Europe. They go to Philippi, seeking first a synagogue, but instead, they only find an informal “place for prayer” by the river, as the community may not have had the ten men needed to start a synagogue. Here, Paul sits down with the women gathered there to teach them. Even after their vision of a man asking for help, they instead encounter women, and Lydia, a Gentile woman, present with the others by the river becomes the first follower of Christ in Philippi. Paul and his companions had to remain open to the guidance of God through changing circumstances to really be able to tune into the kind of help God sought to give the people in their path.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when people offer to help, they really mean that they are offering to do things their way and you just need to accept it? The same is true of spreading the good news, our evangelizing! Sometimes it has gone well, but at other times, people start adding to the good news, making it their news instead of God’s news. For instance, for a long time, to become Christian was also to become Western, it meant becoming civilized in the Western way and adopting Western habits, dress, culture, and food. Now, none of those are part and parcel of the good news which seeks to bring a restored relationship and salvation between the people of this earth and God, but as sure as I am standing here folks would have told you their news was the good news, even with all these additions and subtractions. When we give good news, is it the good news that people need or the good news that we are willing to give? How do we know the difference?
This passage today gives us some clues. First, I think we have to find practices and ways, that keep us open to God. When we pray, for instance, do we fill the quiet with our voices, fearful of the silence, or do we give a moment to listen, to hear what else might enter to fill those spaces? Do we take time to pray, to carve out space where God might speak to us? Are we ready to listen when God speaks up in dreams and visions, for those could hit us anytime and anywhere? While Paul got one in the night while asleep, let’s also not forget his first came through blinding light that knocked him right off of his feet! Today’s scripture shares with us another important piece of hearing God’s voice, do we share our visions? Do we have a group we can talk to about them? Paul certainly did, people like Silas and Timothy served as his close companions. It is only after he shares what he saw and heard that everyone helps him understand what God is saying.
I believe this sharing is a necessary part of tuning in to God’s voice because none of us is alone in this journey. Our faith is one that cannot function or flourish fully in isolation. Even look at what we call ourselves, Christians or literally “little Christs.” Did Jesus ever engage in the work of ministry alone? He is part of the Trinity, part of this ongoing dance and relationship with God. During his life among us, he journeyed with disciples, his close companions. Even now, we call ourselves the body of Christ and see Jesus as our head, so no, Jesus never goes alone. He had and continues to have his troupe. What about us, do we go alone or have we found our troupe? I have been reading a book called God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and the author, Pastor MaryAnn Mckibben Dana, describes her experiences with finding her troupe, and I love what she says because I feel like it compliments God in our scripture this morning:
“Technically, it’s possible to improvise by yourself onstage. But why would anyone want to? Improvising with others makes things messy and unpredictable [... but] it also makes our jobs so much easier. Instead of doing all the work ourselves, we get to play off the energy and experience of others.”
Her improv troupe are the people that bring themselves alongside one another to create something wholly different from what could be made alone. It adds energy and creativity. The same is true of the Holy Spirit in our scripture reading. Yes, each of us receives the Spirit, but we express it and share it in diverse ways. What would Christ’s ministry have looked like without over the top Peter? What would it have looked like without John or Thomas? What would it have been without Mary? We have shared their stories, and the unique ways each has shared the Easter news with us. It is really when we get together and the Spirit starts moving between us in these different ways that something wonderful emerges, the good news God desires us to carry with us to answer the needs of this world.
I think the diverse company we keep also helps us deliver God’s good news rather than our own. We need the different experiences and voices to keep God’s visions and dreams from morphing into our own. For instance, the prophet Jeremiah at one point seems to dismiss dreams as a possible source of revelation, saying:
“You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers…” (Jeremiah 27:9 NRSV)
“Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to your dreams that you dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 29:8-9 NRSV)
The trouble was that the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s day did not want the messiness of God. They did not want God’s plans or vision, only their own. They wanted an echoing chamber of prophets and dreamers and fortune-tellers that all said the same thing, the thing they already wanted to hear/’. Paul has his own dream vision, but the difference is that he does not bring it to his companions for their stamp of approval but for their input and their help in clarifying the message. Our companions, our community, are not just people who say “Yes” to our visions but help us see if they are true. For that, we need differences in our troupe to see where God might be leading us.
How many of you have ever seen the show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In the show, people have to answer increasingly difficult questions to win more and more money, eventually trying to win a million dollars. These questions are presented with four possible answers, and the contestants have lifelines they can use to help them out in picking an answer. One of these is to ask the audience. Do you know what I find fascinating? When folks studied their responses, they found that 90% of the time, the audience got the answer right. The diversity of opinion and varied experiences of everyone together helped the truth come out. Paul’s companions did much the same, all their experiences and differences served to help them determine God’s guidance going forward.
God is always with us. God is always talking with us. Do we make space to tune into that voice? At the same time, do we also do the important practice of finding a community to share these visions and dreams with? These communities cannot be echoing chambers that only answer with what we already want to hear. No, we need to tune into God by sharing with our troupe, our community with all its differences and even disagreements. To do less lessens the wisdom of the Spirit on display, as the good news suddenly might just be our own news packaged as God’s. Instead, are we willing to share our visions, let go of control, and invite the messiness of God into our lives? Without it, we might never go and meet a Lydia and deliver the good news she needed to hear. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman