The Never Ending Journey of Discipleship

Keith McFarren

May 22, 2022

Acts 16:9-15

         Have you ever had a premonition that
something was going to happen?  That’s
what a premonition is…that’s what it’s defined as, “a strong feeling that
something is about to happen, especially something unpleasant.”  It’s probably safe to say that we have all
had “premonitions” or think we’ve had premonitions about something that was
going to happen time during our lives.
    But what about a vision?  Have you ever had a vision similar to the one
Paul had?  I can honestly say that I have
never had a vision.  I’m not even sure
that God gives visions anymore.  Some of
you will agree with me and maybe some of you won’t.  Can God give visions to people today?  Of course, he can…because God can do
anything.  Does he give visions
today?  I don’t know.
    Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, the Director of
Preaching Ministries for the United Methodist Church, did a quick search to see
how many times the word “vision” is used in the NRSV.  He found that the word “vision” appears
eighty-two times.  Thirteen times it’s
found in the apocryphal writings.
Apocryphal writings are biblical documents that for some reason or
another were not accepted into the New Testament by the Orthodox church.
    This, then, leaves sixty-nine times for the
word “vision” to appear in both the Old and New Testaments.  In the Old Testament the book that uses the
word “vision” the most is of course, Daniel…which with its apocalyptic writings
shouldn’t surprise us.  
    In the New Testament, the book that uses
the word “vision” the most isn’t Revelation, which in itself could almost be
thought of as a vision…but is instead the Book of Acts.  The Acts of the Apostles, which is about the
beginning of the Christian Church, uses the word “vision” eleven times.
    Last week God sent a vision to Peter.  This week God sends another vision but this
time it’s too Paul and it has a direct impact on the direction of God’s
newfound church.
    “Come over to Macedonia and help us” the man in the vision
said to Paul.Some scholars have
suggested that the first – century church and its people received visions
because they were closer to God than we are today.  Even though we live in an advanced, scientific
age, it has been suggested that we have lost something…something that keeps us
from being more in tune with the voice of God than what we really are.
    So how do we stay in tune with God?  How do we hear the voice of God?  What does it take to hear his voice?  And then how do we open ourselves to that
voice?  In the scientific age in which we
live, most of us have radios and just about all of us have TV’s.  And because of the popularity of radio and
television there are TV and radio stations out there that transmit twenty-four
hours a day, seven days a week.  But our
radios and TVs aren’t going to do us a bit of good if we don’t turn them
on.  
    Likewise, God is constantly transmitting
his voice and his ideas to us but we aren’t going to hear or see anything if we
aren’t tuned into him.  God is speaking
to us but it won’t do any good if we don’t take the time to tune in and focus
on him.
    Our problem is that we are so busy with
our own lives, doing what we have to do, doing what we want to do, playing with
our cell phones and our I-pads and our computers that we don’t have the time or
we aren’t willing to take the time to tune into God and listen to what he has
to say to us so that we’ll know what he wants us to do.    
    How can we draw closer to God?  What can we do to hear his voice?  I’m reminded of what Psalm 46:10 says: “Be
still and know that I am God.”
What
if we put down our cell phones and quit playing all of the games they offer
us.  What if we got off of Facebook for a
while or stopped watching all the convoluted news that available on our cell
phones.  What if we quit running all over
the country trying to accomplish this and trying to accomplish that?  What if we would just slow down and
relax?  What if we could put everything
on hold and make some time for God.  
    It is in stillness…not busyness that we hear
the word of God.  God still speaks to us,
maybe he’s even trying to send us a vision, but we don’t hear or we don’t see because
we’re too wrapped up in doing what we want to do rather than doing what he
wants us to do.
    Paul’s three separate missionary journeys helped
spread the gospel throughout much of the ancient world.  Over the course of his ministry, he and his friends
traveled over 10,000 miles (by foot) and established at least 14 churches in
places like Greece, Turkey, Syria and many other places that you won’t even
find on modern day maps.
    Wherever Paul and his traveling parties
went, they always relied on the direction of God.  Going to this country and then to that
country…preaching to both the Jews and the Gentiles…being threatened, being
beaten and being thrown in prison…that was the life they led.  But because they followed the lead of the
Holy Spirit, they were always spared and never once found themselves in a
situation that they couldn’t get out of.
    Twice along the way, they decided to take it
upon themselves to change their plans and travel on their own into Asia, but
twice the Holy Spirit prevented them from doing so.  Maybe they decided to go to Asia because it was
a place where people were crying out to be saved by the gospel.  Maybe the people there were like grapes on a
vine that were ready to be picked…like wheat in a field ready to be harvested…like
fish in the sea ready to be caught.  
    Maybe they thought Asia would be a slam
dunk.  They could convert a lot of people
to Christianity and then take a break and rest and relax and live the good life
for a while.  Whatever their idea was…it
didn’t work because it was not what God had planned for them.  The idea of a slam dunk in Asia was against
God’s will and God stopped them dead in their tracks.
    After receiving his vision of going to
Macedonia, Paul gathered up his entire entourage and took off, eventually
ending up in Philippi.  But it was quite
a contrast to what it might have been in Asia.
If Paul thought that Asia would be an easy place to find converts, Philippi
was just the opposite.
    Philippi was intended to be a miniature
version of Rome.  It was governed and
policed by the Roman government and most of its inhabitants were Roman citizens
who worshiped all sorts of pagan Gods. Many of the people living there were retired
Roman soldiers who were given land by Marc Anthony…land that was turned into profitable
agricultural estates and worked and tended by poor people and by slaves who
made up 20% of Philippi’s population.
    Paul and Luke and Silas and Timothy had
been sent to a place where all kinds of forces and all sorts of powers were
working against them so they just couldn’t walk down the middle of Main St. and
start preaching the gospel.
    But this wasn’t Paul’s first day on the
job.  He knew that he had come to
Philippi to preach the gospel to the Jews, but to do that he had to have a homebase
to work from.  He had to have a place to
operate out of.  And as usual, and for
good theological reasons, Paul intended to make his home base at the place
where the Jewish people worshipped…which was the synagogue.
    But Philippi was different than any place
Paul had been before because there was no synagogue.  It’s been said that there had to be at the
very least, ten men to start a synagogue.
But in Philippi, there weren’t even enough Jews in town to start and
maintain a synagogue.
    Sometimes our heart is willing to serve
God, but because of certain circumstances we find that we are limited in what
we can do.  But when you are willing to
serve God, when you go where he sends you and do what he tells you to do, you
never know what the results might be.  
    There was no synagogue in Philippi, but
what there was, was a small clearing down by the river that the women went to,
some Jewish and some Gentile, to pray and to worship God.  
    As Paul preached the gospel, we’re told
that Lydia, who was a Gentile, listened and opened her heart.  The Greek word for “listen” is meant to mean
a continuing process.  In other words,
Lydia had been listening to the other Jewish women at the riverbank long before
Paul even showed up and developed and grew in her faith a little bit at a time.  
    But it was that day, in a small area of
Philippi, surrounded by all sorts of foreign God’s and Goddesses, that Paul, in
some way or another, helped her better understand how Jesus could make a
difference in her life.  Paul changed
what started out to be one life…and ended up changing many more.
    The story of Paul’s journey to Macedonia begins
with an open heart…a heart that was open enough to hear the word of God and then
act on it.  A heart that was open enough
to jump on board a ship heading to who knows where and for reasons
unknown.  To be willing to follow God, to
be willing to join up and be a part of a mission that takes us out of our
comfort zone and out into the land of the unknown is scary, especially when we
have no idea of what lies ahead and not even knowing if our basic needs will
even be met.
    But it was Paul’s obedience to God’s word
that led him to meet Lydia, who was described as being a worshiper of God, yet
there seemed to be something missing in her spirituality.  But we’re told that God “opened her heart”
to Paul’s message…and as soon as she opened her heart and accepted Jesus
into her life, Paul’s vision of coming to Macedonia and the purpose behind it
has been fulfilled.
    If the call to come to Macedonia and
ending up in Philippi was for Lydia’s salvation alone, then she was worth the
cost of Paul’s obedience.  She may not
have been the most impressive or most well known of all of Paul’s converts, but
she was well worth following God’s call.
    Who knows how many men, women and children
God has waiting for us in our journey as we spread the good news of the gospel
of Jesus Christ.  We’ll never know how
many are out there unless we go back to the beginning and put God first in our
lives.  How many people are out there awaiting
our acts of obedience to the word of God as he calls us and leads us out into
the unknown.
    Some of them may not know God at all and
others may be like Lydia and are just waiting for someone to explain the gospel
to them so that they might make the right decision to follow Jesus…and maybe,
just maybe, you were one of those people at some point in your life.  And if it wasn’t for someone in the past who
took a chance and followed God’s call, where might you be today?
    God
doesn’t just tap us on the shoulder and then leave us alone to figure it out
from there.  God is a constant presence
in our lives, always guiding us, always advising us, always strengthening us
for the journey into discipleship.  And just
as he did with Paul, God will lead us and God will direct us in ways that will
require a great deal of faith, but at the same time, through obedience he will
provide for the journey and make sure that all our needs are met.
    Listening hearts and obedient actions, and
a full trust in God are the essential tools needed for the never-ending journey
of discipleship.  Listening hearts and
obedient actions and a full trust in God are what are needed to “make
disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”