“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man beseeching him, ‘Come to Macedonia and help us…Immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach to them.”
Anyone who reads the New Testament can see that the church in Philippi of Macedonia was very special to Paul. Located in Philippi, the largest city in the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony, it was the first that Paul established on European soil, the first break he had made from the east to the west. From there the church would spread to Rome, to Spain, to all of Europe. Of all the churches he founded, he had his strongest bond, his closest and most affectionate relationship with the Philippians. His letter to the Philippians, written from a prison in Rome, is filled with so many expressions of his love and deep appreciation for this congregation that had been so supportive of him: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine, making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…I hold you in my heart,” he wrote, “I yearn for you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more.”
You might think that this church had been planned at his headquarters in Jerusalem, sitting around a committee table, consulting with leaders in the 1st c. church, carefully mapping the strategic points at which new congregations should be planted. You look at the maps of Paul’s missionary journeys, you think of how decisive and assertive he was, and you can easily imagine him plotting his path with push pins. But that’s not how it happened at all. On the contrary, if you look at just the few verses preceding our lesson for today, going back to verse 6, you can see that Paul’s original plans had been to go east, through Phrygia and Galatia into Asia. But the first road was blocked, by the Holy Spirit, we are told, the door was closed, the trip was interrupted. So then he headed toward Mysia, in an attempt to reach Bithynia, and again, the journey was interrupted, the way was blocked, this time we are told by the Spirit of Jesus. By this time, the horses were tired, his companions are thinking he’s lost it. It may have even crossed Paul’s mind that it was time to retire, go back to Jerusalem, back to Tarsus, back to tent making. But Paul kept going, trying different directions. Our lesson picks up at verse 9, at that point when they turned west to Troas, about 10 miles south of Troy. But it was there that Paul had the dream in which he saw a man pleading to him, “Come. Come to Macedonia and help us.” And so from the port of Troas, they launched out west on a journey that would take the Christian faith into an entirely new direction, that would lead them into the west, into Philippi and to the people of the church who would come to be so dear to Paul.
I love the fact that Paul kept on going, even though it seemed like he was going in circles, even though he had no idea where he was going. I have come to believe that’s what faith is: ¼ trust and ¾ persistence. That’s what faith is: going without knowing. Sometimes it is on the way that we find the way. We like to say “God will make a way,” God will open a door. But sometimes God makes a way by closing a door. Sometimes we learn more about what road to take from which roads have been blocked. This is the way in which God can take the frustrating interruptions of life and transform them into opportunities—golden opportunities that we might never have been able to see before.
One of my favorite authors, the Quaker theologian Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak, tells of the terribly disappointing and embarrassing experience being fired from a teaching assistantship. He talks about how demoralizing and depressing it was. And yet, in the end that personal and professional crisis, as painful as it was, became the turning point which led him a vocational choice that proved to be much more authentic and life-giving. It never would have happened had not his original plan been interrupted. In his book, he wrote: “Each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up to us. But we must take the no of the way that closes and learn from it …and then take the yes of the way that opens and respond with the yes of our lives. We must stop pounding on the door that has closed. We must turn around, and welcome the largeness of life now open to our souls.”
Please understand that I am not saying that everything that happens is God’s will—every door slammed shut, every disappointment, every death, by no means. I simply refuse to believe that God pushes people around like pawns on a chessboard. But what I am saying is that nothing is outside of God’s will, that all things are within God’s will, nothing that happens, not even the worst things that happen, can occur beyond God’s reach, God’s capacity to redeem, to bring good out of evil, and life out of death. When the hurricane hit this city and the wind slammed into the church and our lives and hopes and dreams were so seriously interrupted, I don’t believe it was because God said, “See that beautiful red brick church? Let’s teach them a lesson. Bombs away!” No, I don’t believe it was God’s will. But neither do I believe it is outside God’s will. And because of that, even this awful interruption is being used, redeemed, transformed into a golden opportunity. Don’t you see it?
Maybe you are like me. I am a person who does not like to be interrupted. I like to start something and finish it. I am very goal oriented, focused, driven, somewhat controlling. Okay, a lot controlling. This is hard for me. And there are still times when I simply must ask Monica to hold my calls, shut my office door, let me be a little proactive. But I am slowly learning to look at every interruption, every phone call, every chance meeting, every random encounter, not as an unwelcome irritation, but as a God-given golden opportunity.
Think about your own lives. How many of you are doing what you are doing, because somewhere along the line another door closed, your life was interrupted. I think of Luke who 3 years ago had made it into a professional quartet in London and, as young as he was, seemed to be well on his way to a performing career. He packed his bags, bought his ticket, and went to London, only to find out the whole deal had fallen apart. He had to come home to N.O. for whole year. It was such a deflating experience. But during that year he practiced and practiced. He auditioned at several schools. By Spring he got the news that he had been accepted at the school of his dreams, a place he had almost ruled out as a possibility. And this May will receive his Master’s Degree from Juilliard. But it wouldn’t have happened if the door in London had not closed. An interruption turned to opportunity.
I think of a couple who had planned for many months, an adoption of a child from Russia. They had seen his picture, learned his background, painted his room, even given him a name, Jack. Our whole church in BR was already in love with Jack. But then only a few steps from completing the papers, the door of this particular agency slammed shut. The deal was off. They would not have Jack. It was like a death in the family. It was like a funeral. Such a crushing blow. And yet they picked up the pieces, started to work again on another adoption which led to another child from Russia, baby Eli. When this proud young mother walked into church with beautiful baby Eli in her arms, it was as though the waters parted to make a way. He came into the church that day, as little as he was, trying to sing. I could not imagine another child being more perfect for this couple than Eli. And though they always grieve the baby named Jack, they could have never have found Eli if that door had not closed. An interruption turned into an opportunity.
It was like I think of the song the Chapel Choir sang and the mother of Moses, her life interrupted by the cruel decree that meant she had to give up her baby boy, let him go to the Pharaoh’s daughter to be raised in the Egyptian palace. She thought she was doing it to save her son’s life. Little did she know it would save a whole nation. An interruption turned into opportunity.
I think of Ruth, her life interrupted by the untimely death of her young husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law. But just as those doors closed in her face one by one, she turned, and the door to Bethlehem opened wide, a door that would lead to Boaz, to marriage, to a baby, Obed, father of Jesse, father of David. And you remember who came from the house and lineage of David. Jesus: think of him, his mother, Mary’s life was interrupted by an unwanted pregnancy, a disgrace to her family, a scandal to her village, so much so that Joseph had resolved to quietly break things off with her, one closed door after another. Some might have called this an unwanted pregnancy, an illegitimate child, a young woman’s life interrupted. But we call it Christmas. We call him Savior. An interruption turned into an opportunity.
I think of Paul going first this way—the door slams, then going that way, the door slams, then going another way—a brick wall. And then the turning point. The dream. The vision. Not east. Go west–to Macedonia and then to Philippi.
He would be in Philippi for several days before it happened: a random meeting on the outskirts of town, on a Sabbath day, in a place of prayer, where he would bump into a group of women, one of whom happened to be Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, an upper class business woman of means, a woman with connections. Did she have any idea when she woke up that morning that this would be the day that she turn a corner and meet someone who would influence her life more than any other person she’d ever met, that her life would never again be the same?
When she and Paul first began to chat, did she at any point think I gotta go, I don’t have time for this, this was not on my list for today? All we know is that during that encounter, which might not have ever happened, she opened her heart to the message of the Gospel, and then she opened her home as a base of operations for Paul in Philippi. Her entire household would be baptized, her husband, her children, her staff, her servants. The story of the church in Philippi begins and ends in the home of Lydia, First Church, Philippi. She would be remembered as one of the key leaders of 1st c. Christianity, one of the church mothers instrumental in the spread of the faith across the Roman Empire. And how did it all begin? Was it through a carefully orchestrated long range plan with a set of strategic objectives and projected results? No, it was through a series of disappointments, closed doors, and interruptions. If anybody was guiding Paul’s journey at this point, it was not Paul. And that’s just the point.
I don’t know where you are in your own journey now, whether some door has closed in your life, whether some door has opened, whether your life has been interrupted, whether you have seized a new opportunity. This is what I do believe: it is all within God’s will. You are not alone. Another hand is at work. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know the One who holds the future—who holds us! the Maker and Giver of Life itself, is preparing the way for you.