God of the Unexpected
A dramatic proclamation of Acts 16:9-15
Throughout this Easter season I have been focusing on the readings from Acts in my sermons. I decided on this focus because, in the stories of Acts, we get to see how the very first generation of Christ-followers translated all the things they knew about Jesus into their actual lives. Church wasn’t a social expectation for them, or even a theological commitment. It was the shape of their transformed lives.
And since we spent all of Lent talking about transformation, these stories are a resource for us in considering how our faith in Jesus has transformed our lives. Our transformation probably does not happen in exactly the ways it happened for the first Century believers, and that’s OK. There are vast differences in culture, language, and social location. But in these stories we still find human beings we can relate to… people who get confused, and even frustrated sometimes, but who keep trying because they know that Jesus has changed everything for them, and because, in Jesus, they have experienced the grace of God that is enough, even when they aren’t quite sure what comes next.
I, for one, find a lot of encouragement in that. And I find encouragement in the particular message of transformation in today’s story, which is summarized in a commentary by New Testament scholar Eric Baretto: he writes about this passage:
“this is the way upon which God plans the church to walk. We ought to follow God’s call to reach across cultural and ethnic boundaries and learn to find opportunities to do God’s work in unexpected places.”
To help us understand what it looks like to follow God when God is leading us in unexpected ways, let’s hear from the characters themselves…
Following God in unexpected ways… yes, that’s a good way of describing my first visit to Philippi. I came to love the church in Philippi, but the process of getting there was an exercise in frustration. I had been travelling with Silas and Timothy and some others through the region of Asia Minor, where I had already brought the message of Jesus. It was important work, helping the new churches deal with questions, and resolve disputes, but I knew the message couldn’t end there. Jesus had commissioned us to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
So, we agreed together to try to go East into Asia to share the story of Jesus there, but then…the Holy Spirit stopped us. I’d never experienced anything like it before. No guidance on where to go, just a big “No!”
So, the group talked it over, and we thought we would go North into Bithynia, but the Spirit blocked us again! I couldn’t understand it! We were trying to do God’s work, why was God stopping us?! It didn’t make any sense.
We ended up in a coastal town, called Troas, and we had no idea what we were supposed to do next, but then I received a vision. In it a man was calling out to me, “Come to Macedonia and help us!”
Finally, we weren’t guessing anymore. God had given us a direction to go. We boarded a boat, crossed to the region of Macedonia and made our way straight to Philippi, the main city in the region, a perfect base for our mission work there.
We were so sure that things were finally going to start happening… but then we waited… and waited. The man from the vision did not appear, and we weren’t sure what to do next. But we had learned our lesson, so we didn’t try to make our own plans. We waited. And on Sabbath, something prompted us to go outside the city, away from all the important centers of power that seemed the obvious place to gather a crowd.
There was a group of women there, gathered for prayer, and one of them – a woman named Lydia – she was ready to hear the message God had given us to share.
She wasn’t the person I was expecting. I had seen a vision of a Macedonian man, and instead I found a woman who wasn’t even from Macedonia… she was from the region Jesus’ Spirit had stopped us from travelling to.
But, in the end, it wasn’t about my expectations. It was about God’s work. And God had called us there to share the gospel with her.
Indeed. It was God who was at work that Sabbath morning by the riverbank. I wasn’t expecting my whole life to be changed that day, that’s for sure.
Not that I was unfamiliar with change. I’d already changed my country: moving from Thyatira – where I still source my merchandise – to Philippi, where I there is a good market for the purple cloth of my hometown. I’d also lost a husband: leaving me to run my own household, and in a Roman city, no less, where women are generally considered to be property, not property-owners. And I’d changed my faith before too: I was attracted to the God of the Jews, a God whose prophets called the people to welcome foreigners, and care for widows and orphans, and to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
That’s why I was there at the riverbank, gathered with the Jewish women of Philippi, for Sabbath prayer. It didn’t have the ritual formality of a synagogue – but the women welcomed me into their community. My spirit was nourished with them, in prayer to the One True God.
But then the followers of Jesus came, and Paul began to talk to us, and I understood that the God to whom I had been praying was offering me even more. That this same God had come to earth – to teach and to show us that the heart of God’s law is love for God and neighbor— and then to demonstrated that love by dying for us, and then to offer us an eternal hope by rising again and promising us resurrection, and a restored relationship with God that can never be lost!
I couldn’t wait the be baptized, to be a member of this transforming community. And not just me, but my whole household as well.
I didn’t go to the river that day expecting my whole life to be changed, but the unexpected ways of God are sometimes the greatest blessing.
(Son) The greatest blessing? I don’t know if I would say that.
(Daughter) Well, I would! Our lives changed forever the day that mother came bursting into the house telling the whole household to follow her back to the river, because God’s messenger was there, and we were going to be baptized!
(Son) Exactly, our whole lives changed! But why is that a good thing? I mean, the messengers themselves were… pretty convincing. I’d never heard anyone speak like that… Like they actually heard messages from God… but who didn’t seem, you know, crazy.
And the things they told us about Jesus were cool – healing people, and not worrying too much about the rules. I especially like the story about the cripple he healed on the Sabbath – breaking the religious rules and not even bothering to wait for the angel to stir the waters. I like those kinds of stories of Jesus acting in power and authority.
That was all great… until it started disrupting MY Life!
(Daughter, rolling her eyes) I know, I know… You’ve said it a hundred times. “Why did mother have to invite them to stay with us? Why did our house have to become the gathering place for the new church?” You don’t get it! That’s part of the blessing.
Following Jesus isn’t just about the stories. It’s about creating a community where everyone belongs. That’s something we’ve never had! We’ve always been caught in between. Mother’s business gives us resources, but we’re not Roman citizens. We don’t have the social status and power that counts in this town.
But we never fit in with the common people either, who struggle in poverty, and have no control over their own lives. We were always on the outside.
But now, the message of Jesus makes it so clear – none of those distinctions matter. Everyone belongs. Everyone has a seat at the table – at our table! Our home has become a place where all can gather and celebrate that it is God who gives us value – not our status, or our wealth, or our gender, but only God’s love for us.
And so what if that disrupts our lives a bit?! I’ll still take a God who does the unexpected and welcomes everyone!
So will I!
I never imagined that there was any god who cared about me, a slave, a piece of property. “Gods”, in my mind, were for the people who had some hope of their prayers being answered.
But one of the other slave women in my household is a seamstress, and she is regularly sent to Lydia’s shop for the rich fabrics she supplies. She came back one day telling stories about a new community that was gathering at the merchant woman’s house.
We got leave to go from our master – I went mostly out of curiosity – but when we knocked, we were welcomed in! Invited to sit at the table and eat with all who were gathered there. Men and women. Rich and poor. There were no distinctions made between us. And Lydia explained this was the way of the followers of Jesus. Jesus came to show God’s love to the whole world. And that’s what they do. She told us that Jesus called his followers to act as servants to each other, that he even washed the feet of his own disciples as an example for them. Because no one is higher or lower. We are all loved.
I never expected to hear about a God who loves me. But I know one thing: I love Jesus.
These stories are imagined in their details, but not in the God they reflect, or in their understanding of the gospel of Jesus. Because the God that Paul proclaimed, and that Lydia embraced, and that the people in her household and community came to know is a God who works in unexpected ways.
Thanks be to God!