This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Acts 16:6-40
Purpose: To encourage believers that, even when God says “no” to their current plans, they are still equipped and sent by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel.
Today’s story from the early church reminds us of the reality that when God closes a door, He opens a window. Despite our best efforts to seek God’s leading and desire and His will, there are moments and even seasons where we wonder what to do next: Opportunities we feel called to pursue dry up and we worry where God’s taking us (or not taking us). We thought our path to the future looked pretty straightforward, but suddenly we’re encountering unexpected twists and turns and what we’re supposed to do now isn’t clear like we thought it would be. The door we thought we’d walk right through has closed in our face.
Paul’s Revised Travel Plans (and Ours)
If the apostle Paul were here today, I suspect he’d be joining many of you nodding your heads: Yup, I’ve experienced that… Our Scripture reading opens with “Paul and his companions travel[ing] throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia” (16:6a). But you get impression they don’t want to be there. They’re trying to head southwest into what was called Asia back then, but they are “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the Word” there (16:6b). So they figure they’ll go northeast into Bithynia and Pontus, but again “the Spirit of Jesus [will] not allow them to” (16:7). Eventually they arrive at the seaport of Troas, it’s an important transportation hub, connecting people with lots of other places in the ancient world. Unfortunately, Paul and his companions have nowhere to go.
If we could overhear their prayers, I wonder if they’d go something like this:
Why, Lord, are you saying ‘no’ to us ministering to the south?
Why, Lord, are you closing the door to us going north?
There are all sorts of ministry opportunities
in both these directions as far as we can figure!
They are traveling, doing their best to discern God’s will and the Spirit’s guidance, and all they’re sensing is what they can not do.
Bear in mind that God’s repeated no’s are heard over a period of time: The region of Phrygia and Galatia out to Troas stretches out for some 150-200 miles, and there are no planes, trains, or automobiles available to make the trip quicker. [Optional: Project a map of the region as it was in Paul’s day and point out these locations.] So Paul and his companions are walking for no less than a week, on the road for probably longer than that, taking into account pit stops, detours, conversations along the way, and Sabbath rest. That’s a lot of walking and a lot of miles, especially if you’re not sure you’re even remotely close to going in the right direction!
One thing that Paul and his companions as well as 21st century followers of Jesus can be thankful for is the fact that hearing “no” at least keeps us from going where we’re not supposed to be going. A closed door is frustrating, but going through the wrong door would likely be even more frustrating.
Not that that makes things easy. Who likes to hear anyone say “no” to something we’ve planned and hoped for? Kids don’t like hearing the word no, but most of the time adults are not any happier to hear it! But the Holy Spirit does not say “no” because God is giving up on us, or has stopped loving us, or wants to take our fun away. It’s because He’s keeping us from something we’re better off avoiding, waiting to pull the curtain back on something even better than what we currently have in mind.
The days and probably weeks through which Paul and his companions walk, repeatedly hearing God say “no,” eventually ends with a vision of God finally pointing them in the direction He indeed had in mind for them. One night Paul sees “a man of Macedonia standing [before him] and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (16:9). That’s where God wants them; that’s the window God opens for them. The reality is indeed that when God closes a door, He opens a window.
But I’d like for you to think of that window not as the large pane of glass in your living room. Isn’t it more like the smaller, frosted window in your bathroom? It’s not that it’s necessarily harder to get through, but when God shows us the next step, it’s often only that – the next step. To our knowledge, the rest of the itinerary and what to expect are not downloaded into Paul’s travel planner. Paul and company do not get a grand vista overview of what’s coming next in their missionary journey. They only receive the very next step: Get to Macedonia. This is first time Paul’s missionary travels take him to that part of the world; it’s quite possible the place is completely unfamiliar to Paul. God only knows what’s in store there.
The guidance we receive from God’s Word and Spirit will not necessarily depict all the things we can expect to see unfold in the future. God’s guidance often helps us move forward just from day to day, and sometimes even just hour to hour and minute to minute. A lot of times, the Spirit helps us simply take the next obvious step as we carry out our “standing orders.” And those “standing orders” can most simply be summarized as loving God above all and loving our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Mk 12:28-31). God invites and empowers us to make many little decisions within that broad command to love Him and to love others. To do this from day to day, minute to minute, His Holy Spirit equips us with past experiences, common sense, and conversations with other saints. He nudges our hearts and consciences in the right direction. He helps us hear and understand what we read in the Bible. In short, The Holy Spirit helps us mature into people who can indeed make good decisions that are rooted in God’s love and that reflect God’s love. And we can make those good decisions even if we don’t know exactly what the future holds because we can trust the One who is already there.
Paul’s Ongoing Mission (and Ours)
Uncertain of what’s going to meet them there, Paul and his companions take the next step and head further north and further west for Macedonia. [Optional: Project the map again, now pointing out where Macedonia is.] But at least Paul has a good idea of what’s expected of him: He is called to preach the Gospel. The man in his vision asks for help, and the best, ultimate help he needs is to hear the Gospel and come to know and love the same Jesus who Paul knows and loves. Loving God and loving our neighbors means helping others do the same!
Paul and his companions head off to Macedonia and we read how God used them effectively and mightily there. They powerfully bear witness to Jesus throughout the region. A businesswoman in Philippi named Lydia finds her heart opened by God to Paul’s message and she responds to the Gospel (cf. 16:14). It is believed that Lydia is wealthy as she has her own business and owns her own home. And she shares what she has: She has the gift of hospitality through which Paul and his companions are blessed.
Next, Paul frees a slave girl from some sort of spirit that has reduced her to a circus act (cf. 16:16-18). But it turns out that the girl’s freedom is going to strip Paul and Silas of theirs (cf. 16:22-24). They are tossed in jail, but even there, other prisoners hear the Gospel through the apostles’ praying and singing (cf. 16:25).
What’s more, at the moment the jailer – who thinks the prisoners have all escaped after an earthquake rocks the jailhouse (cf. 16:26) – at the moment the jailer is on the verge of ending his life, he and his family hear the Gospel for themselves and they’re all baptized on the spot (cf. 16:30-34). At the climax of this chapter in Acts, the jailer’s family experiences a sort of freedom they never knew before even though they had always been on this side of the prison door.
All these things happen because the Holy Spirit said “no” to Paul’s plans to go into Asia and then Bithynia. The Holy Spirit knew where the Gospel most needed to be heard at that particular time.
When God opens a window for you, it will be one that enables to you to proclaim the Gospel, too. That doesn’t mean you’ll be off on a mission trip to Macedonia in southeast Europe (though it might). But the Holy Spirit who has been unleashed since the first Pentecost will indeed send you places where you can share the Good News of Jesus through your actions, attitudes, habits, ethics, and words. The Holy Spirit helps us imitate Jesus’ selfless life of love, The Holy Spirit helps us appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross. The Holy Spirit helps us celebrate Jesus’ resurrection victory over sin and death and His ascension as almighty King. And through this all, it gets harder and harder to keep the Gospel to ourselves. God sends us each day with the mission to cooperate in His Kingdom-growing endeavors as we love Him and others – whether it’s far away in a place like Macedonia, or across the street at a neighbor’s place, or [refer to a local outreach event in which your congregation participated and/or a mission trip on which people in your congregation have gone].
If you’re in a season of wondering what window God is going to open for you, God never stops sending. Not sure what you’re supposed to do after you graduate? God still sends you. Worried about what this week might hold for your family or at work? God still sends you. Looking forward to some quiet rest and relaxation in the coming weeks? God still sends you. Even in moments of waiting, we are a sent people, sent to share and live the Good News of Jesus however we can wherever we are. The Holy Spirit will open a window for us to get to our own Macedonia’s near and far as we patiently, humbly wait for Him.
But how many windows does God wait to open until we stop trying getting through for our own purposes and begin thinking about how He leads us to live the Gospel message in everything we do? God sends us for purposes greater than we often take into account.
Author Timothy Keller writes about this:
“The Biblical God is by nature a sending God, a missionary God. The Father sends the Son; the Son sends the Spirit and His disciples into the world. Therefore the whole church is in mission; every Christian is in mission. God never calls you in to bless you without also sending you out to be a blessing… So a Christian is not a spiritual consumer, coming to get his or her emotional needs met and then going home. A … church, then is one that trains and equips its people to be in mission as individuals and as a body.”*
We recognize how the Holy Spirit equips and sends us as we consistently spend quality and quantity time in the Word; as we pray daily for His help; as we sense His still, small, sanctifying voice within us; as we seek the wise counsel of other sisters and brothers in Christ, and as we regularly worship with others who are sent like we are. In time, He will open the window and send us through in ways that glorify God, build others up, and bring more into His loving embrace.
As people who are sent, we must be cautious against our church having a “come‑and‑get‑it” attitude. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, the Spirit of Jesus prompts us to have a “go‑and‑give‑it” attitude as we “fish for people” (Mk 1:17). We do this trusting that the Spirit will keep showing us the next steps to take as we follow the “standing orders” to love God and one another.
Not only is this what we see Paul doing as he patiently submits to the Holy Spirit’s guiding, this is what we see Jesus doing during His ministry on earth. To quote one author: “He moved in the neighborhood. He went to people where they were and as they were.” This appalled the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were known as the Pharisees.
“Their approach to God was ‘come and get it!’ In addition, they had tweaked God’s message to moralism: ‘You people “out there” need to straighten up!’ The Pharisees had developed a very insular culture. They did business as much as possible only with other Pharisees (lest they become contaminated). When they traveled they stayed with other Pharisees. They lived in the Pharisee bubble. They had little Pharisee insignias on their burro bumper and they listened only to Pharisee radio stations. The message that they sent to those outside the bubble was: ‘Become like us – dress like us, act like us, think like us, like what we like and don’t like what we don’t like.’ Resistance is futile. If you become like us (jump through our cultural hoops and adopt ours) we will consider you for club membership.”**
But that’s not what mission looks like according to Jesus.
Jesus was not scared away from people because they were unclean. Jesus did not avoid the outcasts. Whether He’d become contaminated was not an issue for Him. On the contrary, in the Gospels, Jesus eats and associates with the despised “sinners and tax collectors” of His day (cf. Mk 2:16). Instead of telling people to clean up their act first and waiting for them to do so, Jesus takes the initiative and makes people clean as He heals and forgives.
Did you catch that? Instead of telling people to clean up their act, Jesus makes people clean as He heals and forgives. We see the apostle Paul following this model in Acts 16, going to Macedonia, not knowing exactly who or what to expect there. Today we’re reminded and equipped and sent afresh to do the same – going out and inviting people through our words and actions to experience forgiveness and healing in Jesus’ name. Maybe we already know who these people are – people God has already put in our lives who need to experience God’s love. They may be living under the same roof as us, or work with us, or go to school with us, or hang out in the same places as us. It’s also possible that we’ll be totally surprised at who God will invite and equip us to love this coming week.
Kids, elderly members, adults, teens: Maybe you feel like the door is wide open in front of you; maybe you’re waiting long and hard for God to crack open a window as Paul and his companions experienced throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia. Continue to trust Him – our generous, giving God. And ask Him not only to show you the way forward in general but how He can send you with the Good News of Jesus to be a blessing to others, including the person beside you and everyone else whose path intersects with yours this week.
Prayer of response
God of love, you poured out your Spirit upon gathered disciples creating bold tongues, open ears, and a new community of faith. We confess that we hold back the force of your Spirit among us. We do not listen for your word of grace, speak the good news of your love, or live as a people made one in Christ. Have mercy on us, O God. Transform our timid lives by the power of your Spirit and fill us with a flaming desire to be your faithful people, doing your will for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Spirit of Christ, fill us with urgency to share our joy in our Savior and Lord.
Spirit of holiness, transform our lives to be beacons in a world of shadows.
Spirit of truth, compel us to see the truth and make us advocates of justice.
Spirit of wisdom, shower us with wisdom, that we may best discern how to serve the world. Amen.
Order of worship suggestions
Welcome, God’s greeting, and mutual greetings
“May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ,
the love of God the Father,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be and abide with us all. Amen.”
“Ten Thousand Reasons” LUYH 559
or “O Praise the LORD, for It Is Good (Psalm 147)” LUYH 549 / PsH 187
Call to worship (leader, people)
Even after the resurrection, when the disciples were weighed down with worry,
Jesus assured them that they were not alone:
“The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything, and remind you
of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
Even after the resurrection, when the disciples were burdened by their fears,
Jesus calmed their troubled hearts:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Even after the resurrection, when we struggle with our faith,
Jesus blesses us with comfort and hope:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27
Especially after the resurrection, when our souls are dry and barren,
the Holy Spirit blows through our lives, bringing us new life.
Hymn: “Wind Who Makes All Winds That Blow” LUYH 239
Call to confession: 2 Timothy 1:7‑8a
“The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid,
but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.”
…But how often aren’t we ashamed –
timid to speak of what we believe and who we love?
Silent prayer (optional)
Assurance of pardon and renewal: 2 Timothy 1:8b‑10
“Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
He has saved us and called us to a holy life –
not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,
but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus,
who has destroyed death
and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Hymn of salvation: “Come to the Savior Now” LUYH 613 / PsH 535
Prayers, offerings, children’s message
Scripture reading: Acts 16:6-40
Message: “Doors and Windows”
“Send Us Your Spirit” LUYH 228
or “Spirit, Working in Creation” LUYH 235 / PsH 415
Prayer of response
May the Spirit of truth lead us into all truth,
giving us grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
and to proclaim the wonderful works of God;
and may the blessing of God Almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among us and remain with us always. Amen.
“Lord, Speak to Me that I May Speak LUYH 754 / PsH 528
or “Go Forth for God” PsH 325
or “Go to the World” LUYH 925
or “Thuma mina” LUYH 945
References and credits
* Tim Keller, Center Church. Quoted by Chris Pedersen in “God Is On the Move. Are We?” (chcrcbonusfeatures.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/god-is-on-the-move-are-we).
** Reggie McNeal, Present Future. Quoted by Chris Pedersen in “The Pharisee Plan” (chcrcbonusfeatures.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/the-pharisee-plan).
In addition to the 2 blog posts above by Pastor Chris Pedersen of Cedar Hill CRC Wyckoff NJ, I found these resources helpful in preparing this message: True to the Faith: Charting the Course through the Acts of the Apostles by David Gooding (Gospel Folio Press, 1995) and William H. Willimon’s commentary on Actsin the “Interpretation” series (John Knox, 1988).
Call to worship crafted by Natalie Ysselstein, Trinity CRC Rock Valley IA.
Prayers of response starters and sending blessing adapted from The Worship Sourcebook (2nd ed.), Q.2.2.11, Q.4.4.2, and Q.9.2.3.
You may enjoy listening to Lianna Klassen’s song “Doors and Windows” as I did when I prepared this service: myspace.com/liannaklassen/music/song/doors-and-windows-92750634.