Times are Changing: Where is God leading us?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
April 18, 2021
Acts 16:1-10

The sermon was recorded on Friday, April 16, at Bluemont Presbyterian Church

At the beginning of worship

The sessions of both congregations, Bluemont and Mayberry, are engaged in planning for the future as we come out of the COVID pandemic. While we all want to get back to our former lives, the primary question to guide our work should be “where is God leading us?” It’s an age-old question as we’ll see today. 

Acts 16

The sixteenth chapter of Acts is a turning point. Paul heads into Europe. The story Luke tells in Acts focuses on Paul and his companions. Barnabas and Peter and others move to the sidelines. This doesn’t mean they stopped their missionary activity. Instead, Luke, the author of Acts, centers his story on Paul. But even Paul had no plans to go to Europe, until a dream… We’ll learn more in the sermon.

Read Acts 16:1-10 

After the reading of scripture

Several years ago, I preached through the book of Acts. Fifty-four sermons! Early on, I began to question the name of the book. It’s full name as it appears in most Bibles is “Acts of the Apostles.” But if you read the book, you’ll understand it wasn’t so much the “acts of the Apostles” as it was “the acts of God through the Apostles.” If it was just up to the Apostles, they’d probably never gotten out of Jerusalem. They often don’t act until prodded to do so by God. God’s Spirit, throughout the book, is the motivating power. 

But as I continued to study this book, I decided it should have at least one subtitle: “The Roots of the Church’s 2000 Year Resistance to Change.” Most often, not only did the Apostles not act until they received a kick in the pants, but they also tried to slow down the work of the Spirit. 

We dislike change

This is a natural response. We don’t like change. We want to do things our way. But times change. People change and so too must the church. Of course, the gospel doesn’t change. We still worship the same God, but how we worship, how we share the faith, and how we live out the gospel changes because the culture in which we live changes. 

Yet, change makes us uncomfortable. We want to turn back time. Let’s go back to the 50s when the churches were full, and things were on the move. But that’s not an option. 

An example of resistance to change 

       You know, as much as we don’t like change, we like to accumulate stuff. That’s true in our homes as it is in our churches. When I was in my first church, I remember working with a group of people going through a bunch of old Christian Education materials. This was in 1990. There were still those who wanted to hold on to old filmstrips of Bible stories. We didn’t even have a working filmstrip projector. They were no longer making bulbs for them. We also had chalk boards and felt boards still up on the walls, which was being replaced by whiteboards (today it would be smartboards). 

https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/

Now, granted, a child could still learn on a chalk board or via a filmstrip. Many of us here had learned the gospel stories in such a manner, but new technology came along. VHS tapes and CDs had come into vogue in 1980s. As Bob Dillon sang back in the 60s, the times are a changing. Today, they are no longer making VHS players!

Why did Paul have Timothy circumcised? 

With the way things change, I wonder why in our text Paul decided to have Timothy circumcised. After all, in the previous chapter, you have the Council of Jerusalem. There, the question of circumcision seemed to be settled for the second time in the Book of Acts.[1]Gentiles did not have to undergo such surgery in order to become Christians. Paul fought for this change. He took this as good news, yet here he has one of his assistants go under the knife. Why? 

Compromise

Paul, in the case of Timothy, compromised. From what we gleam from the text, Paul felt that by having Timothy circumcised, he would be more acceptable to the Jewish population. Timothy had a Jewish mother, but his father was Greek. Today, in Judaism, the line generally passes down through the mother, but there is some question about that during the first century.[2]

Having not been circumcised, while claiming to be a Jewish Christian, would have made Timothy suspicious to the Jews of Asia and Europe. So, while Paul didn’t expect Gentiles to be circumcised, he felt it was a good thing for Timothy. Paul was willing to compromise this principal for the sake of the gospel. 

In Galatians, Paul tells us that circumcision carries no weight with Christ. However, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of being all things to all people in order to win them over to Christ. It appears this is what Paul is doing here by making Timothy more acceptable to the Jews.[3]

Paul’s traveling companions

Now Paul is traveling with at least two companions: Timothy and Silas. He may have been traveling with three, for beginning in verse 10, Luke the author of Acts, shifts from the third-person plural (they) to the first-person plural (we). Does this mean Luke was along as an eyewitness? Scholars have argued it both ways and it’s an interesting idea but doesn’t matter much to the story.[4]

Heart of the matter: Doors are closing       

Now let’s get into the heart of the matter. Starting in verse six, we learn of the paths Paul took through Asia. There seems to be a problem. Doors are closing. The Holy Spirit hinders their ability to share the gospel. The Spirit of Jesus keeps them from even going into new and fertile territory. They head off on this missionary journey but find themselves unable to do the work. What gives? 

How did the Spirit hinder them? Did they come down with a bad case of laryngitis? How did the Spirit keep them from heading to go to Bi-thyn-i-a?  Did the Spirit station an angel by the road with a fiery sword as the Cherubim stood at the east gate to the Eden?[5] We don’t know. Sometimes, however, God closes doors in front of us in order to redirect our lives.[6] God, not Paul, is in control.[7]  

Paul’s dream

The third movement of this passage comes in a dream. Paul must have been frustrated by his inability to do the work to which he felt called. Then, one night he has a vision. We assume this came in his sleep. Ironically, in the darkness, the path forward becomes clear. Instead of working across Asia, Europe calls. 

In this vision, Paul sees a Macedonian man pleading with his for help. How he knew he was Macedonian, we don’t know. Maybe he waved the Macedonian flag like an Olympian. Paul realizes what he must do. According to the text, they agree and arrange passage to Europe.  

Lesson 1 from the text: willing to compromise

There are several things we can take from this passage and apply to our lives and to our work as Jesus’ ambassadors in the world. First of all, at times we should compromise. It may help us reach others. Timothy was circumcised. Sometimes such efforts gain enough trust that we can share the gospel with others. 

What’s important isn’t our own desires, but what is best for the other. When we are considering what to do in the future, this is good advice. It’s another way of living out one of Jesus most frequent themes, “if you want to be first, you have to go to the end of the line” and if you want to be great you have to be willing to be a servant.[8]

What are we willing to sacrifice to help spread the gospel? How can we serve others? 

Lesson 2 from the text: God opens and closes doors

A second theme we see here is how God opens and closes doors, which leads our missionaries into Europe. What we sometimes take as misfortunes can be God leading us to a new opportunity. 

I’ve seen this in my own ministry. Just before I had the call to Skidaway Island, I was all set to accept a call to a church in the Finger Lakes region of New York. But at the last minute, I realized it wasn’t where I was to be. I turned down the call. It was hard. I was excited about the possibilities. We already had an offer made and accepted on a home. 

Afterwards, I commented about how I felt as a pawn in some divine chess match. “Get used to it,” I was wisely counselled. After all, you’re a Calvinist. 

We, who believe in God’s providential control, are able at times to look back and see God’s hand leading us forward. Sadly, however, when we look ahead, we’re like Paul. We don’t see the hand leading us, only the closed doors. But there are times those closed doors leads us to open doors where our skills and abilities and insights can be of use.  

Lesson 3 from the text: Follow God’s guidance

A final theme, which goes with the second one, is that we must follow God and accept the growth he provides. For Paul and company, that meant to go to Macedonia, to Europe, at the pleading of the man in the vision. Where and to whom is God calling us to minister? Where have we been placed? We need to look around and see how we can be useful to God’s kingdom. We should be thankful for those who are here and do what we can to minister in the ways of Christ. God doesn’t call all churches to be all things to all people. 

Paul learned he wasn’t called to spend the rest of his ministry in Asia, but we know other missionaries filled in the gap. 

Trust God to take care of everything

A lightbulb moment in seminary came when one of the leaders of World Vision spoke. During a times of questions and answers, a number of students, some conservative and others liberal, tried to pin this man down to their particular concerns. Essentially the questions could be boiled down to what he was doing about abortion and how was he fighting against systemic oppression. 

Refusing the bait, this man insisted his call was to help feed and care for hungry people. That’s it. He trusted God would call others to take care of those issues. 

Conclusion

There is a wisdom in going in the direction God calls. For this man it meant focusing on hunger. In Paul’s case, it meant leaving behind what’s familiar in Asia and heading off to Europe. What about us? Amen.  

©2021


[1] See Acts 11:18 and 15:19-20.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 232.

[3] Galatians 5:6, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986 reprint) argues in favor Luke joining up with Paul, Silas and Timothy.  See pages 327-328.  William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988) while not discrediting that Luke could have been along, gives two other explanations and then suggests that the use of “we” gives the rest of Acts “a sense of drama and immediacy.”  (See pages 135-136).  

[5] Cf, Genesis 3:24.

[6] See Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Drowers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1976). 

[7] Gaventa, 234.  

[8] Matthew 19:30, 20;16, 20:27; Mark 9:35, 10:37, 10:44; and Luke 13:30.  

20 thoughts on “Times are Changing: Where is God leading us?”

    • Yes! And that’s a good thing. The other day I learned that bears don’t eat broccoli, when one got into my trash and left behind an old shoot of broccoli that somehow didn’t make it into the compost pile 🙂

  1. Good stuff.
    As it happens, I am now reading through Acts. After finishing Isaiah and then John, it just felt right. Having been led to it, I realize it is highly relevant for Christians who feel confused and embattled.
    I’ll close with a joke that went around in the church I grew up in:
    “How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?”
    “CHANGE?”

    • I think the book of Acts speaks to us in the world in which we live in, which philosophically is like that of the first century with multiple faith and thought traditions.

    • There’s a quote I remember from a book I read years ago… “It’s not stress that kills us. It’s the adaptation to stress that allows us to live.” or something like that, from the book “The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit.”

  2. In the past year, I’d say we’ve learned a great deal about people’s resistance to change, on numerous front. People will cling to the familiar and deny reality even at the price of their own destruction.

  3. Being afraid of change is also a major divider amongst groups of people. I think a lot of people truly believe that change is going against God’s will and there’s no changing their minds.

    • wow, if you believed change goes against God’s will, the Hebrews would still be slaves in Egypt. It doesn’t appear they know the Scriptures.

  4. I don’t always welcome change, but I’ve tried to learn to accept it (and thrive on it!).

    There was an interesting article in a recent National Geographic about mathematicians and chalkboards. (and their reluctance to give them up)

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