‘What can we do with a problem like Maria’, sang the nuns. Some time after, in the Sound of Music, it becomes clear that the novice Maria is a square peg in a round hole. Mother Superior has a pastoral chat, and her message is: ‘When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window’. In other words, it may not be right for Maria to stay in the convent, but God will have a bigger and better plan for her.
I have a hunch about folk wisdom quotes like that. I have a feeling that they’re mostly true 80, perhaps 90% of the time. True enough to be a good generalisation. But that remaining 10% – the times they don’t work – that’s big enough to be a problem. Those times when, even with the benefit with hindsight, we can’t see what God’s plan was. There needs to be an additional understanding.
For instance, one lovely service the Methodists have which Anglicans don’t really do is the covenant service. This happens once a year, where people dedicate themselves to follow Jesus whatever happens in their lives. It includes this moving and profound prayer:
‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will…
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.’
Sometimes we are laid aside. We recognise that there are times when the door closes, and a window opens. Maybe you’ve put all you had into a job application which seemed so right, and yet it came to nothing. And then a new opportunity came up where you were and the reason became clear. But sometimes also there never seems to have been a window and it remains a mystery to us. Sometimes a venture may seem so right, it doesn’t work out, and this side of eternity we never know why. I must say that, because tonight’s passage talks about the times when it does work out, but we need to keep the balance.
In Acts chapter 16, Paul has begun his second missionary journey, encouraging the churches he started earlier on. As he ventures towards uncharted territory, in v. 6-7 he has a strange experience. ‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia.’ Why on earth would the Spirit of Jesus stop them going somewhere new and telling people about Christ? Surely that’s a good thing?
Why not go into Asia? It’s a completely new mission field. What could be more strategic than opening up a new province, a new continent for Christ! One day it would happen, but not now. Again in v.7 – When they had come opposite Mysia they attempted to go into Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. What could be wrong with that? At one level, nothing. It’s not a bad thing to do, far from it! Yet it’s not God’s will. Somehow the Holy Spirit stops them – perhaps by events one might call coincidences but they spiritually discern them as coming from God? Perhaps by convicting them it’s not right? Even physically holding them up? Whatever the means, they knew it was from God.
Maybe some of us have had times when a proposed course of action, say buying a particular house, has seemed right. Rationally speaking, it all fits. There’s no reason not to, perhaps every reason to do so. And yet it doesn’t feel right. When you pray about it, you don’t get a sense of peace. Far from it: you feel uncertain or bothered. That can be from God. Both the peace and the lack of it. He knows more than we do, and he can guide us like that. Ignatian spirituality makes a great deal of this sense of inner peace or discomfort. If we are genuinely trying to seek God and obey him, if we are praying, he may confirm his will by this sense of peace.
I keep on learning to trust God’s guidance. Not just rationally, but also intuitively. Sometimes there are things which to all intents and purposes look sensible, but God says no. Maybe that house you looked at had unseen subsidence. Or maybe by moving somewhere else God knew you would meet lifelong friends. At the time we just don’t know.
We have to trust, which is hard if you’re turning down an opportunity. Paul trusted God, and the reason became clearer: In v.9 ‘Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’. There was another field of opportunity. At this point, St Luke joined the band – v.11 begins ‘We’ whereas v. 6 started with ‘they’, and Luke describes their itinerary into Greece.
But when they got there it must have seemed unpromising. Whenever he entered a new place, Paul went first of all to the synagogue, because there he could speak with people who were already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. That gave him an obvious opening, a point of contact and some faith background. Just as when we have Back to Church Sunday or Alpha we often start by inviting people we know who have some Christian background. It gives something to build on. It may be easier for people on the fringe to make steps into faith – although of course we should try and offer the message to all.
But in the Roman colonial town of Philippi there’s no synagogue. That means there were hardly any Jews. You had to have a minimum of ten men to employ a rabbi – on the basis that each man would be giving 10% of his income. Here there’s less than 10. So there’s only a place by the river where a few women gather and pray. Interesting how Paul and his colleagues supposed there would be a place of prayer by the river, and were proved correct. Is there something about water which helps us be still, reflect and pray?
These women find it helpful although some of them, like Lydia, aren’t even Jewish – v.14 makes it clear she was an interested Gentile. However, God opens her heart. That’s an important point. From the way some Christians speak you might imagine that it was our job to convert people. It isn’t. It’s the Holy Spirit’s role.
In v14 c it says ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’. In other words, God did it. Christians are called to be faithful witnesses, but it’s the Holy Spirit who drives the point home. It is God who convicts people, both of sin and the truth of the good news.
That is liberating for us. We aren’t responsible for God’s call, for how people react to Christ, we can only witness and speak, we can’t make them respond. We must show the gospel by the way we live. And explain it by what we say – for if we don’t say anything, how will people know that it’s Christ who empowers us? If we just do good deeds but don’t say anything, all the attention and credit might go to us! Word and deed should work together, and the Lord confirms them both.
So in v.15 Lydia responds to the message and is baptised – along with all her household. That’s how it worked in those days. The head of the house made a decision and the rest of the family, the servants and slaves followed along. The ‘whole household’ may also imply infant baptism – that the little ones were baptised as members of God’s family
The apostles stay at Lydia’s house, events unfold and several people are converted. From these tiny beginnings grew a significant church whose descendants are in the modern town nearby to this day. By all measures, this journey had been a success. Several hundred miles, undertaken because Paul felt God said ‘No’. And what faith to turn your back on the obvious and trust in God’s leading.
If Paul hadn’t been listening to God this might not have happened. He might have been very frustrated in Asia or Bithynia. But because he listened, God could do great things.
I wonder what opportunities we are faced with? May we too seek God’s will for all of life’s decisions. May we be open to his leading, both when he tells us to do something, and when he says no. May we listen for that presence or absence of a feeling of peace, which so often confirms important decisions. May we stay with God when his guidance is puzzling or the reasons unclear. And may we also be able to look back and see with hindsight that maybe there have been times when God has closed a door but opened a window.