Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 5, 2013)

Wordle: Untitled

“With the Risen Jesus, There Are No Dead-Ends” (Acts 16:9-15)

            You and I often run into all kinds of obstacles and roadblocks in our lives.  You set a goal, and it seems like no matter what you do to try to achieve it, something or someone always gets in the way.  We make plans.  Our plans are thwarted.  Disappointment reigns.  Despair looms.  Every one of the paths we wish to take seems like a dead-end.
            But with the Risen Jesus, there are no such things as dead ends.  In his book To the Ends of the Earth, Al Barry wrote: “Although at times Satan would have us believe otherwise, with God at our helm, we can remain confident that with the risen Lord, there is no such thing as a dead-end.  What a blessed assurance this is as we proceed day by day through eternal life with Him.”[i]
            There are no dead-ends with the Risen Jesus ruling and reigning for you.  God may have other plans for you … other directions in which he leads you.  Or he may keep you where you are and by his grace enable you to continue serving wherever he has placed you.  Either way, the Lord carries out his gracious will, his saving purposes … sometimes in surprising ways.  He even finds ways to open hearts that are seemingly closed off to his forgiving, life-giving Gospel message.
            God changed Paul’s plans.  In today’s reading from Acts chapter 16, Paul was on his second missionary journey through Asia Minor, where the nation of Turkey is today.  The verses before our text tell us that Paul and his companions had traveled through the middle of the huge peninsula.  But then, they hit what appeared to be a dead end.  Verse 6 says they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” the province to the west.
            Next, they went further northwest and planned to head east.  But again, another roadblock of sorts.  Verse 7 says, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  Instead, they went down to Troas, a port city which was the gateway to Greece and points westward.
            We’re not told what the Holy Spirit did to stop Paul and his fellow travelers.  Whatever it was, it appeared to be a dead end.  An obstacle.  A roadblock.  But whatever it was that caused them to end up in Troas, it served God’s greater purposes.  This is where our text picks up.
            In a vision, Paul sees a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  Macedonia was on the other side of the sea to the west, in the northern part of what is Greece today.  Paul heeds the vision, hires a boat, and sets off for Macedonia, ending up in the city of Philippi.  This is actually more significant than it might appear at first glance.  This was the first missionary journey into the continent of Europe.  This is why God gave Paul what appeared to be a couple of “dead-ends” back in Asia Minor.  He wanted the Gospel preached here, too.  And soon we hear about the first documented Christian convert in Europe … a Gentile woman named Lydia.  We’ll talk about her in a few moments.
            God sometimes changes our plans.  He may put roadblocks in our way … what appears to be a dead-end.  But in spite of what appears to be a dead-end, God promises that his will will be done.  Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”  In Isaiah 46:10, the Lord says, “My counsel shall stand, and I shall accomplish all my purpose.”  In fact, as God’s chosen, baptized, redeemed one, his gracious, saving will is always accomplished in your life.  “For this is the will of my Father,” Jesus said, “that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).  What happens to you is never outside of this good and gracious will of your Heavenly Father.  Here you recall that oft-quoted verse: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  And Jesus invites us to pray “Thy will be done,” which the Small Catechism says is done even without our prayer.  In the Large Catechism, Luther writes: “As [God's] name must be hallowed and His kingdom must come whether we pray or not, so also his will must be done and succeed.  This is true even thought the devil and all his followers raise a great riot, are angry and rage against, and try to exterminate the Gospel completely.  But for our own sakes we must pray that, even against their fury, His will be done without hindrance among us also.  We pray so that they may not be able to accomplish anything and that we may be firm against all violence and persecution and submit to God’s will” (Large Catechism III.68).
            The devil rages against the Gospel and the Lord’s Church in our country today.  Christianity seems to be dying a slow death in our nation.  The Church is facing what appears to be roadblocks, obstacles, dead-ends.
            Earlier in the week, there was a news report which stated that Soldiers who promote their faith can be prosecuted under military law, according to a statement from the Pentagon. [ii]  Evidently they’ve backed off of this a bit.  But there seems to still be some confusion what you can or can’t say as a Christian in the military.[iii]
            Then you have the Health and Human Services mandate which demands that all insurance companies include abortion-inducing drugs in their coverage.  Christian institutions and business owners are finding themselves at odds with this and are faced with paralyzing fines if they don’t comply.
            Churches are noticing the increasing disassociation of teens and young adults from congregation life.  The faith of our young people – and I suppose us older folks, too – is challenged by evolutionist and secularist worldviews.  Many walk away from the Lord in their college years and do not return.
            Nevertheless, the Gospel still marches forward.  The Gospel marches forward, smashing through what seems to be massive brick walls.  It happens in big ways, like on the day of Pentecost, when three thousand received the Word of the Lord and were baptized into Christ (Acts 2:41).  More often, it happens in small ways, one person at a time.
            It happened to Lydia.  She was evidently a woman of some means.  She was a seller of expensive purple dyed fabric.  She also owned a large residence, enough to house Paul and his travelling party.  There’s no mention of a husband.  Perhaps she was a widow.  Not likely, though.  In the ancient world, most successful women were also attached to a husband … not normally a romantic arrangement but instead for status and for descendants.
            By the standards of the day, Lydia “had it all.”  Yet there was something missing in her life.  She was searching for something more.  The text says that she was a “worshiper of God.”  Lydia evidently was someone who revered the God of the Jews and would gather with other women to hear the Word of the Lord and to pray on the Sabbath Day.  This must have been a small gathering.  You needed at least ten men to form a synagogue in a city.  Any less than that, and you found a place to gather outside, such as by a river.  That’s why Paul knew to look by the riverside.  Paul brought the message of the Risen Jesus to Lydia, and the text simply yet beautifully states, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  She was baptized along with her whole household.
            The message of the Risen Jesus still powerfully works today … simply and beautifully, one person at a time.  I recently heard the story of an unlikely convert whose heart the Lord opened.  In fact, the title of her book is The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.
            Rosaria Butterfield is a married homemaker and mother of four.  15 years ago, her life was completely different.  She was an English professor at Syracuse University in New York.  She wanted nothing to do with Christianity and thought it was damaging to society.  Butterfield was a radical feminist and was also involved in a type of relationship forbidden in Scripture.  I’ll let you draw the conclusions there.
            In 1997, she wrote an article in a local newspaper refuting the Christian view of traditional marriage and families.  Many responses, both hateful and supportive, arrived in her inbox.  One, however, caught her off guard.  It was from Ken Smith, a Presbyterian pastor in Syracuse.  Butterfield initially threw it away, but later fished it out of the garbage.  Smith’s words tugged on her heart and conscience.
            “I had seen my share of Bible verses on placards at [marches I attended],” she explained. “That Christians who mocked me … were happy that I and everyone I loved was going to Hell was clear as blue sky.  That is not what Ken did.  He did not mock.  He engaged.  So when his letter invited me to get together for dinner, I accepted.”
            Butterfield then became friends with Smith and his wife, and began to take a genuine interest in the Scriptures.
            “I tried to toss the Bible and all of its teachings in the trash — I really tried,” she said.  After reading it through for the fourth time, something gripped her. “[T]he Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world.”
            Later, Butterfield felt compelled to attend services at Smith’s church.
            “I fought with everything I had,” she admitted, explaining her mindset as she sat in the pews. “I did not want this.  I did not ask for this.  I counted the costs.  And I did not like the math on the other side of the equal sign.”
            But one day, she gave up fighting against God.  “I was a broken mess,” Butterfield said. “Conversion was a train wreck.”  She goes on to describe how her life and her lifestyle was completely turned upside down by the Holy Spirit bringing her to faith in the Christ who died on the cross for her sin.  It was traumatic for her.  It radically changed her life and her lifestyle.  But Jesus did say something about denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him.  He didn’t promise it was going to be easy.  It’s a narrow path.  But it is the path of life and salvation.[iv]
            God still opens hearts today.  Dead-end hearts.  Stony, hardened hearts.  The same Holy Spirit who put up roadblocks for Paul is also the one who breaks through the sinful barriers in our hearts and gives us faith in Christ.
            The stone-cold body of Jesus was laid in the tomb.  A stone was placed in front of the entrance.  It sure seemed like a dead-end for him and his followers.  But Jesus made a way for each and every one of us when that stone was rolled away.  He made a way for us out of our life of bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  Rising from the dead, he proved his victory over those enemies that constantly seek to put roadblocks in walk of faith, tempting us to unbelief and despair.  “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
            Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has made a way for you through all your dead-ends.  He has broken down the barrier between you and God by forgiving your sins.  He guides you through your life and accomplishes his saving will for you.  He will bring you through your own death.  He will call you from the grave on the Last Day.  And he will shine his glorious light upon you in eternity.
            With the Risen Jesus, there are no such things as dead-ends.

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