In your life, has there ever been a difference between what you expected to happen and what actually happened?  You might say something like, “Well that is not at all what I expected.”  When I worked for the federal government, we would call that “experience.”  Experience is what you got when you expected something else.  We know that those experiences can be either pleasant or unpleasant.  We have had something occur in our physical lives that was unexpected and the same is true about our faith journey, our church life, and our spiritual lives.

          Last week for example, we saw where the missionary team of Barnabas and Paul, men who had risked their lives for Jesus, parted company because Barnabas wanted to bring his cousin, John also known as Mark, along on the next missionary trip.  We could not have expected that to happen.  We saw where Paul refused Barnabas’ request to bring John also called Mark along on that trip because Paul believed Mark’s leaving them on the previous missionary trip was a form of desertion making it unwise to bring Mark on the next trip.  We somehow expect that in church everyone will go along and get along, but we know from Barnabas and Paul and from our own lived experience that that is simply not the case.

          When it comes to matters of deep faith, it seems highly likely that we have had experiences that we did not expect to happen.  Time and again we think God was going to respond in a specific way, meaning our way.  We have been faithful.  We asked for something in our prayers, nicely, and adding at the end, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” and whatever we asked, we expected God to do the way we asked but that did not happen.  We wonder why God did not do as we expected.  We want answers.  And there is a reason that sometimes our prayers, the way we prayed them, our demand for God to act a certain way, did not happen.  In the Book of Isaiah we would read, 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).  We experience the unexpected with God because God confounds us.  His ways and his thoughts are vastly different from our own.  And so, in matters of faith, we are often experiencing the unexpected.

          As we continue in our faith journey, we can see how others, today notably Paul, reacted to experiencing the unexpected from God.  It appears in Paul’s life that, “9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:9-10).  Macedonia was the territory we would primarily think of as Greece in modern-day Europe.  Macedonia had been the powerhouse of Alexander the Great.  And so, with the vision of the Macedonian man in his mind, Paul and his companions set their course for Greek territories.

          From our reading today, we would find that “11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days” (Acts 16:11-12).  Paul and his companions had arrived in Macedonia and gathered themselves in the city of Philippi.  Although the city of Philippi was in Macedonia, the city was a meaningful and historic place to the Roman people.  For about 100 years earlier, the Roman civil war that arose after the assassination of Julius Caesar ended in an epic battle at Philippi with the defeat of Brutus.  After that time, many Romans moved into Philippi making it very much a Roman city.

          Now Paul’s practice when entering a new city had been to bring the news of Jesus to the Jewish people and God-fearing Gentiles of the city who would gather at the synagogue.  But what we find is that “13 On the Sabbath we [Paul and Silas] went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer” (Acts 16:13).  Something unexpected had happened here.  Paul discovered that in coming to Philippi, that the city did not have a synagogue.  There would have been ample temples and other religious places for the God’s of Rome and for the emperor but no synagogue.  In Paul’s time, it took a minimum of ten Jewish men to gather to form a synagogue.  Since the Jews lacked an approved building to hold their services, the Jews, however many there were, would have had to go outside the boundaries of the city to find a place to pray.  And so, Paul left the boundary of the city to find a place of prayer, believing it would be near a river.  What a river? Because Jews would meet near a river to have running water available to ceremonially wash as part of their worship of God.

          So, Paul made his way to a river outside the boundaries of the city but again he found something unexpected.  Instead of his vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come to them, Paul found at the riverbank women gathered to pray.  Luke wrote, “We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God” (Acts 16:13-14).  So far nothing was going the way Paul envisioned it.  No synagogue to start with, no men to preach to, and as it turns out no Jews with which to start because Luke said Lydia was a worshipper of God, meaning she was likely a Gentile by birth attracted to the idea of the God of the Jews. 

          Some years ago, I got asked to work with a church that was going through a difficult time.  A group within the church was dissatisfied with their pastor and they said they wanted someone to help mediate and resolve the concerns.  I thought, “How hard could it to help a group of Christians to come together, place their faith in Christ, and resolve their differences?” That was my vision of what would happen.  Then just before the first meeting with the congregation and the pastor, it became clear that this group that asked for mediation wanted to use the mediation process to fire their pastor.  That is not what I had expected.  Instead of one or two meetings to resolve the differences, I led many meetings over 2½ years to help the church work through the issues.  What I discovered was that some in the group who wanted to fire the pastor were not even Christians.  One person proudly said that he did not believe in God, but he considered the church his church as well.  I never was able to quite understand that man’s thinking.  Other members of the church had a strong belief in Progressive Christianity in which they viewed Jesus as one of many good teachers from which we might learn something. The view of these folks was that all religions believe in “love and goodness,” which is mostly true.  But then again as the poet Steve Turner wrote, “They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”  This was something I did not expect to find in a church.  In the end, rather than being able to resolve the differences, my work shifted to strengthening and encouraging the Christians of the church to hold fast to their faith amid the conflict.  That was not my vision of what I was being called to do but perhaps this was God’s vision all along.  We cannot presuppose God will bless us in what we desire even if what we desire seems like a good outcome.  We must leave open the reality that God’s ways are not our ways and our thoughts do not become His.  This is what Paul was experiencing along the riverbank outside the city of Philippi as he spoke to Lydia, a God-fearing Gentile and the women gathered with her. That reality was a long way from the vision of a Macedonian man Paul saw calling him to come.

          And so, as we go back to that riverbank Luke tells us, “14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14).  Lydia came to believe in Jesus and thus has the distinction of being the first person in Europe to have accepted Christ.  Luke made it clear that Lydia’s coming to faith was through the movement of God to open her heart to receive the message of salvation through Jesus Christ delivered by Paul.  And again, what was Lydia’s way of showing her adherence and belief in Christ?  Luke wrote instructively, “She (Lydia) and the members of her household were baptized” (Acts 16:15a). Lydia, as a believer, was faithful to the command of Christ and was baptized.  Because of Lydia’s public expression of faith, other members of her household were moved to similarly give their lives to Christ and be baptized.

          There is a subtle yet powerful message here at the end of verse 14 and the beginning of verse 15, “The Lord opened her (Lydia’s) heart to respond to Paul’s message. She (Lydia) and the members of her household were baptized” (Acts 16:14b-15a).  The first part of that powerful message is that when God moves in our lives, it is nice but not necessary, for other members of our family or household to affirm that movement.  Even if others do not affirm God moving within us, we need to follow the movement of God as Lydia did expressing her faith as she must have with her words because Luke said she responded to Paul’s preaching.  Second, those who are spiritually matured, as Lydia was becoming, must not wait to follow Jesus, for those in their circle who are spiritually immature to follow Jesus.  In our immediate case, Lydia was clearly the head of a household.  Luke said Lydia was a dealer of purple fabrics meaning that Lydia was a businesswoman providing for herself and her family.  Luke also used the phrase, “Lydia and her household” suggesting that Lydia likely had no husband and was therefore responsible for leading those living in her home.  Lydia, as a leader, understood that leaders lead.  Lydia responded to Paul’s message and immediate sought baptism. Her leadership helped Paul’s message of salvation take hold in the lives of the others of her household.  When it comes to our following the leading of God, we must not wait for others to feel led, we must be obedient, act, and lead others. We would each do well to see if God is moving us to act in some manner but we have not done so because members of our household are not willing to join us.

          There would be more unexpected things Paul experienced in Philippi.  Paul drove a demon out of a girl who told fortunes.  For that, a crowd was riled up against Paul and Silas and they were stripped, beaten with rods, and jailed.  But for all that Paul and Silas experienced that did not fit their expectations, there were blessings from God.  Paul would later write a letter back to the church in Philippi in which he would say, “3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6).  Paul considered the church of Philippi, began from scratch on that day along the riverbank, as his “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1).  Paul believed this even though none of what happened in Philippi fit Paul’s vision of what he expected to happen.

          What then can we take from Paul’s experience in Philippi that we can bring into our lives?  I think there are three things that we should take into our lives.

          First, every believer in Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit within them giving them a sense, a vision if you will, of where and what God desires us to do.  God is a God of movement.  We should not be statutes in the park. Paul had a vision of going into Macedonia, but Paul’s first move led him to a situation that was nothing like he expected.  God is moving you and he is moving me.  Perhaps not to Macedonia or to meet people along the riverbank but God is moving us. But are we moving?  Paul, even while in prison, understood the idea of moving forward.  He would later write to the church in Philippi, “12b I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12b-14).  Physically Paul was not going anywhere, yet Paul was moving forward.  To what or where is God moving you forward?  What for the sake of your faith are you straining forward as though you were seeking and stretching to grab hold of a prize?  Reach for it but do not be surprised if what you grab onto is not exactly what you expected but it will be what God desires.

          Second, we must remain open to whom our partners in ministry may prove to be.  Paul was accompanied on this missionary trip with Silas and other men seeking to fulfill the vision of reaching out to the Macedonian man.  Instead, Paul found women along the riverbank.  There was, of course, Lydia.  But in Paul’s letter to the Philippians there two other women who were instrumental in the development and the sustainment of the his joy and crown, the church of Philippi.  There was Euodia (yo-d-ia) and Syntyche (sin-tie-sh) whom Paul described these women as his co-workers who “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). Paul did not expect Lydia, Euodia, and Syntyche to be his companions and champions of the gospel in Macedonia but they were.  We cannot predict who God will involve in our lives in developing our own faith and therefore we must not exclude others.

          Finally, we should learn not to lose hope.  Sometimes things in our lives do not work out as we had hoped or planned. When that happens, we can lose heart and become discouraged. Paul found himself in prison in Rome awaiting execution that eventually did come about. While Paul did risky things, I suspect Paul had hoped that his life to end in execution. In facing that prospect, Paul said, “6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Yes, you should pray the outcome you desire will be given to you, but more importantly Paul said hold fast to what, to whom, God has already given you, His Son, Jesus. Paul said for in what we have already received from within God our hearts can be guarded from disappointment and discouragement. We will not be disheartened. We can put our minds at ease that God has taken care of our most pressing concern - our eternal life. If we focus on that, then our minds will not be as grieved about other things in life that do not meet our expectations.

          Let us all open our hearts to God and receive what He desires for our lives. Amen and Amen.